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US professor Peter Erlinder seeks bail for Rwanda genocide denial charges

Peter Erlinder was arrested last month as he was preparing a case for charges of Rwanda genocide-denial against opposition presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire. The court will decide Thursday afternoon.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / June 17, 2010

Peter Erlinder, a US law professor at the William Mitchel College of Law in Saint Paul, Minn., who is charged with genocide denial appears at the Gesabo Intermediate Court outside Kigali, Rwanda, on June 7, awaiting the court's verdict on his appeal for bail. Erlinder has been representing controversial Rwandan opposition politician Victoire Ingabire, who is also accused by the government of Paul Kagame of revisionism concerning the Rwandan genocide during the early nineties.

AP Photo/Marc Hofer


Johannesburg, South Africa

An American lawyer, Peter Erlinder, arrested on charges of denying and minimizing the Rwandan genocide of 1994, will find out on Thursday whether he will be granted bail in a trial that is expected to signal just how much room there is for political expression and dissent in the country ruled for the past 16 years by President Paul Kagame.

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Mr. Erlinder, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn., was arrested in the nation’s capital, Kigali, on May 28, soon after his arrival to prepare a case for charges of genocide-denial against opposition presidential candidate, Victoire Ingabire.

If convicted of the charges against him, Erlinder could face 10 to 20 years in prison. Even before jail time begins Erlinder’s family worry about his health in custody. Erlinder was taken to hospital on Wednesday June 16 for concerns about his blood pressure.

“The (Rwandan) government has a reputation in implementing economic reforms, tackling corruption, and in women’s representation, and that makes it a ‘donor darling,' ” says Jason Stearns, an independent analyst on Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. “But at the same time, Rwanda’s government has greatly restricted political space and the freedom of expression, which raises fears about the long term sustainability of those reforms.”
 With elections looming later this year, the big question isn’t who is going to win, says Mr. Stearns; the greatest possibility of dissent comes from within the ruling party, not the opposition, as shown through a series of high-level defections from Kagame’s inner circle. “The big question is how over the next seven-year term will Paul Kagame transform his government,” says Stearns, “from a very tightly controlled one into one that is more broadly representative.”

The case against Erlinder

As a lawyer, Erlinder has been a thorn in the side of the Kagame regime since the mid-1990s, defending former Rwandan military officials who were accused of orchestrating the genocide of 800,000 Rwandans from April to July 1994. Erlinder’s defense exonerated the top accused of orchestrating the genocide, although some subordinates were found guilty of specific war crimes short of genocide.

Erlinder’s statements are controversial. He doesn’t actually deny that the killing of 800,000 Rwandans (mainly of the Tutsi ethnic group) took place; he just denies that the slaughter was organized by Kagame’s enemies, the extremist members of President Habyarimana's government, but was rather the spontaneous reaction by civilians.

Erlinder also alleges that the slaughter was largely kicked off by a military invasion by President Kagame himself, when he was a rebel leader, after the April 6, 1994, assassination of Habyarimana.