On May 28, Peter Erlinder, an American lawyer and professor at Minnesota’s William Mitchell College was arrested in Rwanda for allegedly denying the existence of the country’s 1994 genocide and supporting genocidal ideals. Erlinder has served as a defense attorney for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda since 2003, but was only arrested when he began defending Victoire Ingabire, a leading (Hutu) opposition leader challenging 16-year president Paul Kagame for the presidency this August. The fragile hullabaloo has galvanized a movement among American free speech activists and lawyers hoping to get Erlinder released.
During an interview with Oliver Nyirubugara last week, Erlinder said that his treatment in Rwanda would say a lot about the country’s dedication to the rule of law. “If Kigali is a country which respects the rule of law and concept of freedom of expression and freedom of speech,” he said, “I should be treated as any other professional would be.” See a video of the interview here.
Erlinder has a reputation for defending unpopular clients, ranging from suspected terrorists to sex offenders and convicted murderers. But a key aspect of most developed legal systems is that defendants have the right to representation, no matter how heinous their acts are supposed to be. Since many scholars of the post-conflict situation in Rwanda believe that the country’s justice system is being manipulated by the ruling party, it appears that the charges against Erlinder’s clients may be politically motivated.
Reports have shown that in the years after the 1994 genocide, when the Tutsi-controlled government of Paul Kagame began consolidating power, many cases of violent revenge against Rwandan Hutus went unreported. The country’s homegrown restorative justice system, for example, only applies to crimes that occurred before December 1994, missing the revenge killings from the years that followed. This led hoards of Hutus to flee the country for the Democratic Republic of Congo to avoid violence (although many guilty genocide perpetrators also fled west to avoid being tried and imprisoned.)
This is understandably an incredibly touchy subject, and I personally believe that it is offensive to suggest that the Rwandan genocide did not happen. But this doesn’t appear to be the purpose of Ingabire’s statements. Rather than spouting genocidal logic, then, the international community should consider the fact that Ingabire may be attempting to loosen Kagame’s 16-year stranglehold on the Rwandan government and genocide reconstruction.
For those reasons, some powerful American lawmakers and lawyers have joined to demand Erlinder’s release from Rwandan prison. “He’s an attorney who’s represented all kinds of unpopular causes and clients, but that doesn’t mean he should be in jail,” said Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “I know Professor Erlinder as a long-standing member of Minnesota’s legal community.”
In a statement released by the National Lawyers Guild this week, the group’s president David Gespass said “there can be no justice for anyone if the state can silence lawyers for defendants whom it dislikes and a government that seeks to prevent lawyers from being vigorous advocates for their clients cannot be trusted.”