Wife, friends say Erlinder's career defined by unpopular causes

Masako Usui
Masako Usui, wife of jailed St. Paul law professor Peter Erlinder, says her husband described himself as a "people's lawyer." Usui has not spoken to her husband since he was jailed in Rwanda on Friday, May 28, 2010.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

St. Paul attorney Peter Erlinder has often raised eyebrows in the Twin Cities for the long-shot clients and unpopular causes he represents, but his friends and family say his controversial work in Rwanda has been the crusade of his career.

The constitutional law professor is now in his sixth day of detention in a Rwandan prison cell. Erlinder's attorney say police in the capital city of Kigali have accused Erlinder of denying the country's infamous 1994 genocide and say he is a national security threat.

Erlinder's wife, Masako Usui, said she hasn't spoken to her husband since he was jailed Friday. The only official word she's received came Tuesday from a U.S. Embassy official who paid Erlinder a visit at the Kicukiro Prison.

"He said to me, through embassy people, 'He's OK, don't worry too much," Usui said. "That's the main message. And, 'Give me sleeping pills.'"

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Those sleeping pills are prescribed medication Erlinder requested after complaining of problems falling asleep in his cell. Usui had them FedExed, along with some additional medication for his high blood pressure and cholesterol.

American attorney Kurt Kerns, who visited Erlinder in prison, said Rwandan officials want to charge Erlinder with threatening national security, denying the genocide, and spreading "genocidal ideology."

A State Department spokesman told MPR News that a consular official visited Erlinder to confirm his welfare, but the department has not called for his release.

Usui and Erlinder
Masako Usui and her husband, jailed St. Paul law professor Peter Erlinder, met in Tokyo in 1995. The couple have been married for about 10 years.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Erlinder, who teaches at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, knew the risk when he left for Rwanda last month. He's defending a presidential candidate from charges of spreading illegal views on the country's genocide. Erlinder wrote letters to Minnesota's members of Congress urging them to contact the State Department to ensure his safe passage.

Erlinder believed he was one of seven people targeted for assassination by Rwandan president Paul Kagame. When the alleged hit list was leaked publicly in February, Erlinder told friends that he considered it a human-rights award from Kagame.

The Rwandan genocide resulted in the deaths of about 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus. But over the past seven years, Erlinder has argued that's not the whole story.

In a 2005 interview, Erlinder told MPR News he believed President Kagame, who is commonly viewed as a hero who ended the massacre, was in part responsible for starting it. He said Kagame's position of power allowed him to control the genocide narrative.

"If we have victor's justice, we also have to have a revision of history to make that possible," Erlinder said. "And unfortunately, with most history, it's the victors that tell the story."

Erlinder has consistently said he believes the massacres were not part of a plot to wipe out Tutsi civilians -- but were rather the final, three-month chapter following a civil war that lasted years. Erlinder is president of an association of defense lawyers for an international tribunal that is trying the alleged masterminds of the genocide. One of his clients was a Rwandan war commander accused of perpetrating it.

The gray-haired professor has always championed unsavory characters. And while some have ridden him off as a bleeding-heart activist, his supporters describe him as an unrelenting truth-seeker.

When he met his future wife in Tokyo in 1995, he was up front about the niche he carved out for himself.

"He told me the first time, 'I'm a people's lawyer.' What does a 'people's lawyer' mean?" Masako Usui said.

Usui said she learned Erlinder saw himself as an attorney who loved to represent the individuals everyone else walked away from.

"Maybe somewhere, sometime, people like Peter must be needed in this society because society can be so unfair," she said.

According to his academic resume posted online, Erlinder grew up on the South Side of Chicago and was the first in his family to go to college. Before then, he fixed up garbage trucks, sold water coolers door-to-door, and managed his family's hydraulics repair shop, according to the resume.

While Rwandan officials are accusing Erlinder of not having a license to practice law in that country, the same claim has been made in Minnesota.

Federal Judge John Tunheim says the courts have denied Erlinder's repeated requests to represent clients. Although Erlinder has a license to practice in Illinois, he never took the Minnesota bar exam or formally applied for his in-state credentials, Tunheim said.

"He's represented significant defendants in other parts of the country, but he certainly does not have much experience in our court because he's never qualified to practice here," Tunheim said.

Still, Erlinder has assisted in some high-profile Minnesota cases, including those of suspected terrorists, and his criticisms of the U.S. government are well documented.

His colleague, Gena Berglund, a human-rights attorney who met Erlinder while attending William Mitchell, acknowledges that his views do skew left.

"On the other hand, an overarching framework for his ideology is that he believes in human freedoms, and where he sees human freedoms being violated, he's willing to step in," Berglund said. "And if that involves criticizing a government or two, he'll do it. He doesn't back down."

That tenacity might be needed to get Erlinder through his latest, and toughest, legal battle.