It’s certainly a relief to have Twin Cities attorney Peter Erlinder back in Minnesota after his harrowing arrest and imprisonment in Rwanda. But now that he’s safe and sound, it’s time to air some frustration with the William Mitchell College of Law professor. His serious health problems meant he had no business being in the central African nation right now, particularly given his sharp-edged high-profile criticism of its president.
Cagey defense attorney he may be, but Erlinder appears to have been incredibly naive about the risk he faced by traveling to Rwanda to defend a political opponent of Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame. Civilized nations don’t throw defense attorneys into prison. That Rwanda did so suggests that Kagame has something to hide and that there is high-level political interference in the nation’s justice system. Still, this is a small, shaky central African nation grappling with the aftershocks of the 1994 genocide.
Questioning the government’s account of the massacres is a crime, one that carries a prison sentence of a decade or more. Erlinder should have realized that being a dedicated defense attorney — one who has asked provocative questions about the genocide — put him at substantial risk of arrest.
Earlier this year, Erlinder helped file suit in U.S. federal court alleging that Kagame helped incite the violence that triggered the genocide. He’s also raised questions about Kagame’s complicity during his work before the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal, which is weighing Rwandan war crimes. When he arrived in Rwanda this summer to defend Kagame’s opponent in the upcoming August elections, Erlinder also may not have had the same kind of legal protections that he had during his work with the international tribunal.
The 62-year-old professor was stunningly ill-prepared for Rwandan prison conditions after his arrest for genocide denial. Erlinder suffers from heart problems, high blood pressure and has acknowledged having "emotional and psychological issues.’’ At one point, he gulped pills to force prison officials to move him to a hospital. He’s lucky that Rwanda took apparent pity on him and released him after 21 days. Instead, Erlinder is now decrying its government as worse than Nazi and Communist secret police.
On Tuesday, Erlinder told the Star Tribune that "not once did anyone in an official capacity say this was not a wise idea.’’ This is nonsense. Someone who is a smart attorney, who is as familiar with Rwanda as Erlinder, should have had the commonsense to weigh the risks on his own and ultimately decide against the Rwandan trip — particularly if he was physically or emotionally unable to handle a prison stay. Erlinder’s dogged pursuit of justice is admirable, but he needs to consider more than just that when weighing future legal missions abroad.