St. Paul lawyer detained in Rwanda is ailing

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA and PAT PHEIFER , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: May 31, 2010 - 9:13 PM

Erlinder's Kenyan attorneys stopped a two-hour interrogation when the St. Paul lawyer fell ill.

St. Paul lawyer Peter Erlinder was taken to a hospital Monday after about two hours of interrogation by authorities in Rwanda, where he has been imprisoned since last week, his attorney said.

Kurt Kerns said by cell phone from the Kigali hospital, where Erlinder was resting, that he believes conditions in the Kigali jail exacerbated Erlinder's preexisting ailments; his blood pressure, for example, was way up.

"It's a Rwandan jail, there are mosquitoes, not enough blankets, overcrowded conditions," he said about 4 p.m. Monday -- about 11 p.m. in Rwanda.

Erlinder, 62, is in Rwanda to help defend presidential hopeful Victoire Ingabire against charges of promoting genocidal ideology. He was arrested by the Rwandan police Friday. Ingabire is running against President Paul Kagame in the Aug. 9 elections. Ingabire also was arrested, but she was released last week.

Kerns was barred from accompanying Erlinder during the interrogation at the Kigali jail. However, two Kenyan attorneys got credentials to practice in Rwanda and were representing him, Kerns said. Kennedy Ogetto and Gershom Otachi, lawyers from Nairobi, insisted upon ending the interrogation when it became clear that Erlinder was unwell.

"At the beginning he wasn't feeling well, but he said he would try," Ogetto said, continuing that as time went on, his client developed a fever and dizziness.

An appearance by Erlinder before a Rwandan judge did not happen Monday as anticipated. A date has not been set, but it may happen Tuesday, Erlinder's daughter, Sarah, said. After that, he could be released on bond or continue to be held, she said.

"There's still a lot unknown," said his daughter, an Arizona lawyer.

Erlinder 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. 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. About 800,000 people died during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

On Sunday, Kerns, of Wichita, Kan., had visited Erlinder, along with Rwandan lawyer Jean Bosco, and reported that he appeared to be in good health and good spirits.

However, Sarah Erlinder said, "We're still very concerned about his immediate physical safety."

She said family members and friends are growing "increasingly frustrated" by the lack of response from the U.S. State Department. The official word Friday was that it was a "local issue" and the process would have to play itself out.

"We figure a U.S. attorney arrested while defending his client is not a local issue at all," Sarah Erlinder said. "It's illegitimate to hold him on these charges, and we need the U.S. government's help to get him out."

Bill Harper, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said Monday that the congresswoman's office hasn't heard anything since late Friday when McCollum spoke with the U.S. ambassador in Rwanda. Because the State Department was closed for the Memorial Day holiday Monday, Harper said he didn't expect an update until Tuesday.

For her part, Erlinder's wife, Usui Masako, said she's trying to remain "calm and tough," but she's worried and increasingly angered. She was close to tears all day Monday, she said, and an observant cashier at her neighborhood Kowalski's noticed.

"She came close to me and hugged me," Masako said, speculating that the woman had seen her face on news reports. "She said, just keep smiling and I'm with you."

Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409 Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992

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