The Twin Cities lawyer, a champion of unsavory people and unpopular causes, sits in a Rwandan jail, accused of conspiring to deny that nation's 1994 genocide.
The clients of Peter Erlinder do not generally win popularity contests. From accused cop killers and sex offenders to a suspected Al-Qaida associate, the Twin Cities attorney has spent a career brashly representing outcasts who stir deep public animosities. No apologies given.
Now the 62-year-old William Mitchell law professor sits in a Rwandan jail, accused by the government there of being in league with those who would deny the Rwandan genocide.
"We understand that human rights activists schooled in the U.S. Bill of Rights may find this objectionable," said Rwandan government spokeswoman Louise Mushikiwabo. "But for Rwandans -- schooled in the tragedy of the 1994 genocide -- Mr. Erlinder's arrest is an act of justice."
On Wednesday, Erlinder's relatives were headed to Washington to press for his freedom. Yet despite efforts by Minnesota's U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum to intercede with the State Department, the Obama administration has yet to call for Erlinder's release.
To those who know him, the case that took Erlinder to Rwanda is of a piece with the work he has done for decades on behalf of unpopular defendants, many of whom see themselves as political prisoners.
"It was almost a joke in school," said his daughter Sarah Erlinder, an attorney in Flagstaff, Ariz. "What does your father do? Oh, he represents cop killers and sex offenders. Now it's war criminals."
Over the years, Erlinder has defended American Indian fishing rights activists and championed war protesters and civil liberties activists. His law school job gives him the freedom to pursue his passion, frequently pro bono, for clients who are often indigent.
Along the way, he's also taken on less savory cases: Minnesota sex offender James Poole, a physician convicted of assaulting 11 patients; Minneapolis cop killer A.C. Ford, a reputed gang member; and Mohammed Abdullah Warsame, a Canadian citizen who aided Al-Qaida.
Unapologetically on the left
"He seems to gravitate toward unpopular cases and unpopular causes," said Klobuchar, a former Hennepin County attorney who has known Erlinder for years.
Ted Dooley, a St. Paul attorney and friend of Erlinder, said the professor is "unabashedly, unashamedly left. ... He believes the people are the power."
In Rwanda, where some 800,000 people lost their lives in ethnic conflict between Hutu and Tutsi, Erlinder has been trying to rewrite the history of good and bad in a conflict that the international community has largely blamed on the Hutu.
"As I understand it, I don't think he's really denying that there was a genocide," said William Mitchell professor emeritus Kenneth Kirwin, who has known Erlinder for decades. "I think he is more concerned with who was more at fault, or more responsible."
In 2003 Erlinder took over as lead attorney for one of four main defendants charged with genocide in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He quickly became a critic of the tribunals, even participating in a brief strike challenging their fairness.
Took on Rwandan president
Three of the defendants, including Erlinder's client, were convicted of genocide and sentenced to life in prison. But in a victory for the defense, all four were acquitted of conspiring to commit genocide before an April 1994 presidential assassination that sparked the mass killings.
That finding undermined the idea that the genocide was planned before the assassination, said Scott Straus, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin.
During the six-year trial, Erlinder took aim at Rwandan President Paul Kagame, arguing that Kagame also should have been on trial.
In April, Erlinder was one of three attorneys who filed a suit against Kagame in U.S. federal court, alleging that Kagame was behind the 1994 assassination.
Knowing he would not be well received by Kagame, Erlinder sought the attention of Minnesota's congressional delegation before departing.
Kagame, Erlinder wrote in a May 6 letter to Minnesota lawmakers, had "specifically targeted" him and other human rights lawyers for "discrediting or assassination." Noting Rwanda's long history of violence and assassination, Erlinder concluded, "I must take the threat seriously."
"He knew exactly what he was getting into," said Bill Harper, McCollum's chief of staff. "He knew it was dangerous."
Friends, family supportive
On Friday, Erlinder was arrested in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, where he said he was representing opposition presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu charged with promoting genocide ideology, the same accusation leveled at Erlinder.
Ingabire has been released on probation. Erlinder is scheduled to appear before a Rwandan judge Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the State Department released a statement saying it is aware of the arrest but that the decision "was the responsibility of the Rwandan government." The United States has close ties with Rwanda, providing an estimated $208 million in aid this year.
Erlinder's ordeal leaves colleagues and family members worried but supportive.
"I am very proud of him," said his Japanese-born wife, Masako Usui, speaking from her St. Paul home. "He represents real people and he's brave enough to go against power."
"Peter believes social change comes from the streets," rather than from the court system, said Twin Cities attorney Bruce Nestor.
Erlinder is being represented by another American attorney, Kurt Kerns, who reported that Erlinder spent part of the weekend in a hospital, overcome by fever and dizziness, partly a result of high blood pressure.
Activists who have spoken with Erlinder's attorneys since his arrest said they indicated Rwanda is serious about bringing formal charges, possibly Wednesday. But his supporters doubt Erlinder will be easily cowed by Rwandan authorities.
"To a certain degree he is fearless," Scott Erlinder said of his brother, "but he also believes in doing the right thing, and I don't think he thought that the Kagame regime would do something this stupid."
Staff Librarian John Wareham contributed to this article.