Rwandan government spokesperson defends treatment of jailed Minnesota law professor

Peter Erlinder
Peter Erlinder, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul
Raoul Benavides, William Mitchell College

A Rwandan government spokesperson today denied that jailed Minnesota law professor Peter Erlinder is being mistreated and accused him of delaying the legal process by faking illness.

"[Erlinder] has been questioned by Police and Prosecutors and if it had not been for interruptions by what medical experts reported as being faking illness and suicide attempt (by his own admission), this process would have concluded and get him produced in court," spokesperson Louise Mushikiwabo said in an email to MPR News.

She said Erlinder is the only detainee who "has attempted suicide to escape conditions there."

A judge is expected to rule Monday on whether to release Erlinder, family members said.

The William Mitchell College of Law professor has been held in a prison in the capital city of Kigali since May 28 on allegations that he expressed illegal views about the country's 1994 genocide. In the last week, he has been hospitalized twice -- once for an undetermined illness and once for the alleged suicide attempt.

Erlinder appeared before a judge on Friday for preliminary hearings and has been accused of genocide denial "in general terms," Mushikiwabo said. She said officials will formally charge him "at the end of questioning."

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She declined to state whether Erlinder prosecutors will offer to release him on bail pending a possible trial, but said, "When he is produced in court, bail is one option under Rwandan law."

U.S. embassy officials in Kigali told family members that a judge will decide whether to release Erlinder, release him on bail, or continue to detain him pending a trial, said Peter Erlinder's daughter, Sarah Erlinder, one of several family members in Washington D.C. this week to meet with embassy and elected officials. Peter Erlinder is expected to remain in custody over the weekend.

"So we still have hope of something positive happening on Monday," Sarah Erlinder said.

Erlinder also visited the Rwandan embassy in Washington D.C. today and described the half-hour conversation as cordial and positive.

"It's very complicated, and there are a lot of interests at stake," Erlinder said of the predicament her father landed in. "But I went as my dad's daughter, concerned about his health, and about getting this resolved as quickly as possible, so everyone can move on."

Family members also learned Erlinder was allowed to present his own case at Friday's preliminary hearing. His team of lawyers also made arguments in his defense.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department called for his release "on compassionate grounds."

Among those joining the chorus calling for the release of Erlinder is perhaps the most famous Rwandan in the world, Paul Rusesabagina, who saved more than 1,200 people during the genocide as a hotel manager, as depicted in the movie "Hotel Rwanda."

Rusesabagina, who has also been targeted by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, said Kagame is trying to make an international example out of Erlinder for disputing the government's official explanation of the genocide. But the strategy of putting an American lawyer behind bars will backfire, Rusesabagina said Friday.

"This is a good lesson to the international community, telling each and every one of us, 'Listen, I have used these own laws to oppress my own people, and now I'm going beyond," Rusesabagina told MPR News.

In the written statement, Mushikiwabo said the State Department has expressed concern over Erlinder's mental health, and that a joint U.S.-Rwanda team will conduct a medical evaluation and advise the prosecution.

"We are not a Government insensitive to health condition; at the same time, the legal process must take its course," she said. "The Government of Rwanda cannot tell the Prosecution what to do, but we are confident that the case is being handled fairly and professionally."

Family members and friends who are in Washington D.C. this week to push for Erlinder's release say they hope Rwandan authorities will free him soon -- even if it's on the reasoning that Erlinder is mentally ill.

"If that's cover for them to do the right thing, that's fine," said Gena Berglund, associate director of Erlinder's group, the International Humanitarian Law Institute of Minnesota. "It's a way for them to save face and get out of this situation. They have a lot of domestic political pressure to charge Peter and 'do justice,' so it's a balancing act."

Mushikiwabo also denied Erlinders' attorneys' allegations of poor conditions at Kicukiro Prison, where the law professor is being held.

"Prison condition at Kicukiro detention center are decent and within the means of this Government," she said.

Erlinders' attorneys have complained that officials have not allowed Erlinder to make phone calls to his friends and family -- a claim that Mushikiwabo dismissed.

"Supervised phone calls are not in violation of law or prisoners' condition; his lawyers are with him and can work it out," she said.

Mushikiwabo also denied reports that Rwandan officials have threatened to arrest Kurt Kerns, Erlinder's U.S. attorney, who allegedly made insulting comments to Rwandan officials.

"However, prosecution has expressed disappointment over his remarks in which he referred to arresting officers as PUNKS," she said.

According to Rwandan media reports, Kerns has apologized for his remarks.

Kerns did not immediately return calls for comment.

Erlinder arrived in Rwanda several days before his arrest to represent a presidential candidate who was also accused of promoting "genocide ideology." Genocide is a sensitive subject in Rwanda after the 1994 killing of an estimated 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Current Rwandan President Paul Kagame is credited with ending the massacres when he led mostly Tutsi rebels to defeat the Hutus.

In April, Erlinder helped file a lawsuit in the United States accusing Kagame of ordering a plane that was carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi to be shot down in 1994. The deaths are widely credited with sparking the mass killings.