Rwanda court grants medical bail to Erlinder

Erlinder in Rwandan court
In this photo from June 7, 2010, Peter Erlinder, a law professor at the William Mitchel College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., who is charged with genocide denial appears in a Rwandan courtroom for a bail hearing.
AP Photo/Marc Hofer

The family of Peter Erlinder said he has been released from custody in Rwanda and may return to Minnesota within days.

The St. Paul human-rights attorney has spent the past three weeks shuttling between a jail cell and a hospital bed in the capital city of Kigali. On Thursday, a Rwandan appellate court agreed to grant Erlinder bail for humanitarian reasons, allowing him to seek medical treatment in the U.S.

But the bizarre case could be far from over.

Erlinder's grown daughter, Sarah Erlinder, says her 62-year-old dad could be home as early as Sunday. She said over the past few anxious weeks, she's dreamed about what it would be like to reunite with him --then she wakes up.

"The reality is not as nice as the dream. But maybe it will be now," Sarah Erlinder said.

But charges against her father still stand, and it's possible he may have to return to Rwanda to defend himself if the case goes to trial.

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Sarah Erlinder admits the story of her father, an American lawyer jailed in Rwanda, has been strange. Peter Erlinder traveled to the African country last month to defend an opposition leader from charges of denying Rwanda's genocide. Then Erlinder himself was arrested. Authorities accused him, too, of denying or minimizing the 1994 atrocities.

While incarcerated, Erlinder's health appeared to worsen, and he admitted this week in court that he tried to kill himself. His request for bail was initially denied.

Meanwhile, family members, activists, and even Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and members of Congress called for his release.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar was just one of several elected officials working with the State Department free Erlinder.

"You know, this has been way too long of a process, and I was hopeful after a day or two, this would have gotten resolved," Klobuchar said. "I won't be totally happy with this until he gets home, because there have been so many twists and turns, hospitalizations, and hearings that haven't produced anything."

During Thursday's court hearing in Kigali, Erlinder was still in the hospital -- this time, for high blood pressure, after refusing to take his prescription pills while in jail. His brother said Erlinder apparently thought the pills could have been tampered with.

Peter Erlinder told a judge Monday that he made another recent trip to the hospital after stuffing tissue too deeply into in his ears. Mosquitoes apparently were a problem as he tried to sleep at night.

Erlinder's medical troubles, documented by records from Erlinder's doctors in Minnesota, were enough to persuade Judge Johnson Busingye with Rwanda's High Court to free him. The judge said today: "No matter how great the accusations, his physical and mental health must take precedence over the case against him. ... It would be unjust to put his life at risk of morbidity or mortality as suggested by his doctors."

After the ruling was announced, one of his lawyers, Gershom Otachi, told reporters he was pleased with the decision.

"I am happy with it. I don't know about my client, whether he is happy with it, but I imagine he will be," Otachi said.

But the Rwandan authorities say their investigations into Erlinder will continue. The Rwandan genocide resulted in the deaths of about 800,000 people, mostly Tutsi minorities who were killed by extremist Hutus. Erlinder, however, has argued that Hutus were also the victims, and said President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, was responsible for triggering the violence.

Human rights groups and the legal community have cried foul over Rwanda's laws on genocide ideology, saying they are too broad and could be used to squash political opposition -- and their lawyers.

Sarah Erlinder said that knowing her dad, he may want to return to Rwanda to defend himself.

"I've joked about personally revoking his passport after this," Sarah Erlinder said.

While Rwandan authorities have said Erlinder's actions have amounted to a publicity stunt, Sarah Erlinder said that isn't fair. She said her dad's decisions on who he chooses to represent shouldn't have launched an international human rights crisis.

"Because we haven't been able to talk to him in so long, I have a lot of questions for him, too, just like, what is going on, what he's thinking, and where his head is," she said. "I imagine he'll be tired, but I plan to talk to him for a long time."

But most of all, she just wants him home.