American in Rwanda freed, but still faces genocide denial charge

American lawyer Peter Erlinder was released by a court in Rwanda. But he still faces charges that he denied the 1994 killing of 800,000 people is genocide.

By , Staff writer

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    US lawyer Peter Erlinder (l.) greets Rwandan presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire at a high court in the capital, Kigali, Monday. Mr. Erlinder who was accused of denying the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, was released by a Rwandan court in Kigali today.
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Peter Erlinder, an American lawyer accused of denying the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, has been granted an unconditional release by a Rwandan court in Kigali today.

Mr. Erlinder was arrested last month and charged with denying and minimizing the genocide, soon after arriving in Rwanda to defend opposition presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire on similar charges of genocide denial. Erlinder has reportedly promised to return to Rwanda to face the charges against him, although he is currently in a hospital in Kigali for an ailment related to blood pressure.

Erlinder’s family, reached by phone in the US, says that they are relieved to hear the news and that the US Department of State has confirmed that Erlinder has been granted unconditional release.

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“We’ve just gotten confirmation from the US consul in Kigali, who had attended the hearing,” says Erlinder’s daughter, Sarah Erlinder. “He is in the hospital right now, but we expect he will be able to return in the next couple of days.”

UPDATE: Rwanda's Prosecutor-General Martin Ngoga said in a statement: “Bail on health grounds cannot be mistaken as vindication for Mr. Erlinder – it just proves that the justice system he so freely criticizes was willing to show him compassion with respect to his physical and mental wellbeing. This will not deter the prosecution as we finalize the case against Mr. Erlinder."

Erlinder’s case raised a chorus of concern from lawyers groups such as the American Bar Association, and from human rights activists. It also highlighted what Human Rights Watch has called an increasingly authoritarian streak by the government of President Paul Kagame, who has ruled the country since pushing out the regime of assassinated President Juvenal Habyarimana in July 1994.

Most experts pin the blame for the genocide on the extremist followers of Mr. Habyarimana, who preached hatred of Rwanda’s minority Tutsis, and called for the mass slaughter of Tutsis over state-controlled radio stations. But Erlinder and some moderate politicians of the Hutu majority say the real story is more complex, arguing that the violence of April – July 1994 was spontaneous.

Rwandan law specifically forbids the reinterpretation of the events of that time, and many ethnic Hutu politicians and other critics of the Kagame regime say this law is often used to silence critics under the threat of “genocide denial.”

Ms. Erlinder says she has no idea what her father will do next – whether he will return to Rwanda to face the charges against him, or to continue to act as a defense lawyer for Ms. Ingabire, the opposition candidate.

“I saw that story also (about his pledge to return to face the charges) and it sounds like him,” says Ms. Erlinder. “He’s not someone to run back here and hide.” She adds that she believes that her father didn’t realize he might be arrested for statements he had made about Rwanda’s history.

Erlinder’s brother, reached by phone in the US, also expresses relief at the news of his brother’s release. “Oh boy, am I going to kick his butt when he gets back,” he laughs.

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