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Rwanda arrests U.S. Lawyer defending Opposition Candidate

June 3, 2010 ·

Justice and rule of law shouldn't take vacations, especially when champions of the law like Peter Erlinder need our help.

ErlinderLawyers in this country often get a bad rap for charging predatory rates and manipulating the fine print for their personal gain. It is too easy to forget that lawyers play a vital role of enforcing the rule of law and protecting our most basic rights and liberties. So how do we respond when the tables are turned and a lawyer's rights are being violated /in need of defense?

The US State Department suggests we sit on our hands. Nothing has improved for almost a week since Rwandan police arrested Peter Erlinder, a US lawyer and head of the International Criminal Court’s defense lawyer’s association, in Kigali last Friday. He had just arrived to defend his client, presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, when he was arrested and charged with the same crime for which she is wanted: practicing “genocide ideology.”

Rwanda’s recent constitution includes a “Genocide Ideology Law,” intended to penalize genocidaires and those who deny the reality of the1994 genocide. Although this law rests on good intentions, President Kagame has employed it with increasing frequency and in situations where it is unsubstantiated. In essence, the law has become a tool of the regime for political targeting and elimination of their opposition. 

Erlinder’s arrest is especially notable in this trend because it is the first time Rwanda has used “genocide ideology” charges to detain a foreign national. While Erlinder never denied the genocide, he has said it is inaccurate to blame only one side and criticized Kagame for suppressing open discussion of the subject. Ironically, the Rwandan government responded to Erlinder's rational appeal by making him an example of his own criticisms.

Kagame’s regime has leveled this emotionally charged indictment against its political opponents in the lead up to presidential elections August 9th. The most recent and high profile charge came against Victoire Inagabire April 21st, after she announced her candidacy for Kagame’s seat.

The international community, particularly the World Bank, has heaped praise on Kagame’s regime for its role in Rwanda’s economic recovery and political stability since the disastrous genocide there in 1994. This praise should not overshadow the increasingly authoritarian tendencies in Rwanda, however. These include muzzling of the independent press, harassment and intimidation of opposition parties in elections, and now criminal indictments against political opponents and their lawyers. Read more about the regression of democracy in Rwanda here.

The United States is incontrovertibly required to address Rwanda’s actions, both to protect Mr. Erlinder and to send a broader diplomatic message that such unlawful action against US citizens abroad will not be permitted. Yet so far, the US has prioritized maintaining its healthy political relationship with Rwanda.

“The US has had a special relationship with Rwanda, which remains one of the largest recipients of US foreign assistance in Africa.  Given the US government's expressed commitment to democracy and the rule of law, it is critical that the Obama Administration and the US Congress uphold these values in Rwanda and demand the immediate release of Peter Erlinder, an advocate of justice,” said the Institute's Emira Woods.

The National Lawyers Guild, of which Erlinder was formerly president, was first to issue a statement demanding his immediate release. At a national press conference in Washington June 3rd, the president of the National Lawyers Guild, David Gespass, said, "Professor Erlinder has been acting in the best tradition of the legal profession and has been a vigorous advocate in his representation of his clients. There can be no justice for anyone if the state can silence lawyers for representing defendants it dislikes.”

The injustice of Erlinder’s arrest and detainment is on the hands of both Rwanda and now the United States for its continued inaction. "The real issue here seems to be whether the US and the world will stand by and allow my father to be detained and prosecuted for doing his job, as an attorney and advocate for his clients," said Sarah Erlinder, daughter of Peter Erlinder.

The detainment became extremely critical Tuesday, when reports that Erlinder was hospitalized and had tried to commit suicide while in jail were released by the Rwandan government. "He mixed between 45 and 50 tablets in water and took the concoction in an attempted suicide," Rwandan Police Spokesman Kayiranga said. "However, the police managed to intercept and took Erlinder to hospital before the drugs could take their toll on his body."  Erlinder’s family disputes the validity of this claim and is pressing the Red Cross to make an independent investigation into his condition.

Why are NGOs the only reliable mechanism for news here? The US Embassy in Rwanda has been disturbingly absent throughout this affair.While the US Embassy staff took off work this Monday for Memorial Day, a holiday to commemorate those who fought for justice and freedoms, a champion of those very values remained behind bars just miles away in Kigali.  Justice and rule of law shouldn't take vacations, especially when champions of the law like Peter Erlinder need our help.

You can write to the Rwandan government demanding Peter Erlinder's release here.