St. Paul lawyer is under arrest in Rwanda

  • Article by: BOB VON STERNBERG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 28, 2010 - 9:19 PM

Peter Erlinder is there to aid in defense of opposition presidential candidate charged with genocide.

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Peter Erlinder, a professor of law at the William Mitchell College of Law, has been arrested by the government of Rwanda, charged with denying the genocide that drenched that nation in blood during the 1990s.

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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A St. Paul lawyer has been arrested by the government of Rwanda, charged with denying the genocide that drenched that nation in blood during the 1990s.

Peter Erlinder, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, was arrested this week after he arrived in Rwanda to join the defense team of an opposition presidential candidate.

Erlinder, 62, was charged with "genocide ideology," a Rwandan legal prohibition against denying the genocide that killed as many as 800,000 people who were hacked, shot or bludgeoned to death in 1994.

Erlinder is a well-known attorney who has outspokenly defended suspected terrorists, sex offenders and convicted murderers. Most recently he advised Chippewa bands in northern Minnesota that are trying to assert their treaty rights.

"He knew what he was getting into -- he knew he was going into a danger zone," said Bill Harper, chief of staff for Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who formally alerted the State Department of Erlinder's plans.

Erlinder is defending Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza against charges of genocide; she also had been arrested but was released this week.

Two years ago, the president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, called Erlinder a "genocidaire" -- a genocide criminal -- for taking the case of another defendant accused of genocide.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was the product of years of tension between two ethnic groups, the Hutu and Tutsi. The killings stopped only when the Tutsi rebel army, led by Kagame, secured control of the country.

As part of his defense, Erlinder has turned the traditional account of the Rwandan genocide on its head, claiming that the Tutsis were not the primary victims but the instigators and that the massacres were actually part of a civil war.

"It's always been the guy that won the war who can tell the story," he said in a 2008 interview. He added: "The fact of the matter is, the quality of any civilization is determined by how they treat those who are most reviled."

Police spokesman Eric Kayiranga said Erlinder was arrested Friday morning and will be presented in court to face charges. Kayiranga said the arrest was not politically motivated: "It has nothing to do with diplomacy; it is totally a criminal case."

Before traveling to Rwanda, Erlinder wrote to McCollum's office, saying he was concerned about his personal safety while there. She, in turn, wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking that U.S. consular officers in the capital city of Kigali be notified.

Rwandan officials contacted the embassy Friday to say Erlinder would be arrested and U.S. officials were present in his hotel room when he was taken into custody, Harper said. Since then, they've had what the State Department described as "unfettered access" to Erlinder, he said.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, said Friday evening that she has spoken with W. Stuart Symington, the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda, who is monitoring Erlinder's case. He told her that Erlinder is in good health, Klobuchar said.

"We are now working with the embassy to ensure that he is treated well and that the legal process works quickly and fairly so he can come home," she said.

Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., also has contacted the State Department and an official at the Rwandan Embassy in Washington.

The National Lawyers Guild, a self-described progressive legal organization, called Friday for Erlinder's release. In a statement, the guild said Erlinder "has been acting in the best tradition of the legal profession and has been a vigorous advocate in his representation of Umuhoza."

William Mitchell Dean Eric Janus issued a statement saying, in part, that Erlinder "exemplifies the great tradition of lawyers who take on the representation of unpopular clients and causes."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184

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