MINNEAPOLIS – A Minnesota law professor jailed in Rwanda and charged with genocide denial has long been a sharp critic of the central African nation's president and even helped file a lawsuit accusing the one-time rebel leader of sparking the slaughter that erupted there in 1994.
Peter Erlinder, 62, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul with a history of taking on unpopular causes, was arrested Friday, about a week after going to Rwanda to help with the legal defense of Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader running against President Paul Kagame in Aug. 9 elections. Ingabire is accused of promoting genocidal ideology.
Erlinder is accused of violating Rwanda's laws against minimizing the genocide in which more than 500,000 Rwandans, the vast majority of them ethnic Tutsis, were massacred by Hutus in 100 days. Erlinder doesn't deny massive violence happened but contends it's inaccurate to blame just one side.
He leads a group of defense lawyers at the U.N.'s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The tribunal is trying alleged masterminds of the genocide, which stopped after Kagame's mostly Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu-led government.
"Peter is a tenacious and vigorous advocate, to say the least, so when he is assigned to take on the responsibility of defending someone on a serious criminal case he's going to give that person the very best defense he can," said Eric Janus, the dean at William Mitchell. "And for Peter that means digging into the historical record."
Erlinder, a former president of the progressive National Lawyers Guild, has worked as a litigator or consultant on numerous high-profile cases involving the death penalty, civil rights, alleged government or police misconduct and defense of political activism. He also has helped defend people facing terrorism charges, including Mohammed Abdullah Warsame, a Canadian citizen who in 2009 pleaded guilty in federal court in Minneapolis to aiding al-Qaida.
In late April, Erlinder helped file a lawsuit in Oklahoma accusing Kagame of ordering the 1994 deaths of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira, igniting the genocide. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the widows of the former presidents, who were killed when their plane was shot down.
Erlinder has made the allegations before, citing tribunal documents and books by former tribunal prosecutors. Kagame's government denies the accusations.
Erlinder's wife and daughter, Masako Usui and Sarah Erlinder, said he knew he was taking a risk by going to Rwanda but probably thought he had taken sufficient precautions by contacting the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Kigali and Minnesota's congressional offices.
He could face up to 25 years in prison, according to lawyers working for his freedom.
Rwandan Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga said Erlinder has clearly violated the country's laws.
"He has continually engaged in conspiracy theories and denial surround the circumstances of the genocide. He has promulgated this dangerous and distorted fiction over many years. Entering Rwanda was a brazen act of provocation, since Erlinder must clearly understand he is in breach of the laws of our country," Ngoga said in a written statement.
Erlinder also has accused the U.S. of a decades-long cover-up of what he alleges is Pentagon complicity in massacres committed by Kagame's forces. Among those he has blamed was J. Brian Atwood, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Clinton administration.
Atwood, now dean of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute for Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, said Tuesday he strongly disputes Erlinder's cover-up claims, but Atwood said it's outrageous that the Rwandan government is holding Erlinder.
"He's aggressive and one can question his methods, but he's doing his job as a defense lawyer. ... I just think the Rwandan government is making a huge mistake and doesn't understand our, or international, systems of jurisprudence. It's just wrong to hold defense lawyers," Atwood said.
Ngoga's office compared Rwanda's laws to those in some European countries against denying the Holocaust.
"We understand that human rights activists schooled in the U.S. Bill of Rights may find this objectionable," government spokeswoman Louise Mushikiwabo said in a statement. "But for Rwandans — schooled in the tragedy of the 1994 genocide and who long for peace — Mr. Erlinder's arrest is an act of justice."
Erlinder was hospitalized Monday after falling ill during interrogation. Usui, his wife, said he was returned to jail Tuesday morning. She said his lawyers there told her he's basically safe but can't sleep well, and she was trying to send him his blood pressure medication.
Usui and the professor's daughter want the U.S. government to help and hope to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"It's a critical situation," said Sarah Erlinder, an Arizona attorney. "He's being held illegitimately and we need them to be advocating for him and his release."