Family says Erlinder took pills to get out of Rwanda jail

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ and JEREMY HERB , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: June 3, 2010 - 11:04 PM

Police called overdose a suicide attempt, but Peter Erlinder, who was arrested last week, said squalid conditions are affecting his health.

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St. Paul attorney Peter Erlinder’s daughter Sarah Erlinder, left to right, brother Scott Erlinder and wife Masako Usui spoke at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 3, 2010, calling for Erlinder’s release from a Rwandan prison.

Photo: Jeremy Herb, Star Tribune

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WASHINGTON - St. Paul law Prof. Peter Erlinder told U.S. consular officials in Rwanda that he swallowed a concoction of prescription pills to escape the squalid conditions of a jail cell where he has been held for nearly a week, his family said Thursday.

While State Department officials called for his release, the family said Erlinder told consular officials that he "did not want to spend another night in jail." Rwandan police said Wednesday that Erlinder had attempted suicide, which friends and associates promptly denied.

"It's more like a hunger strike," said Erlinder's wife, Masako Usui. "He would never try to take his own life."

Usui acknowledged that Erlinder, 62, has taken antidepressants most of his adult life, but maintains that was not a factor in his decision to overdose. Rwandan police found Erlinder slumped over in his cell Wednesday morning, apparently after taking unknown tablets dissolved in drinking water.

"He said he took the pills," said his daughter, Arizona attorney Sarah Erlinder. "But he wasn't trying to die."

Erlinder's family and friends said it appears he took a nonlethal dose of medications to force Rwandan authorities to transfer him to a hospital from the dank jail cell where he was being held with seven or eight other prisoners.

Family members said lawyers who visited Erlinder described the cell as a "cage." Gena Berglund, Erlinder's legal assistant, said he was being handcuffed each time he was taken out of the cell, even to go to the bathroom.

Erlinder, a William Mitchell College of Law professor and longtime civil liberties activist, was arrested last Friday on allegations that he has denied the 1994 Rwandan genocide, a criminal act in that country. He had traveled to the East African nation to represent opposition presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, who herself has been charged with promoting "genocide ideology." Erlinder has maintained that Rwanda President Paul Kagame was complicit in the mass killings.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday that the Obama administration is pressing for Erlinder's release on "compassionate grounds."

One of Erlinder's lawyers said Erlinder had been transferred back to jail but is being kept in much better conditions than previously.

After his overdose, Erlinder was transported to the Saudi-built King Faisal Hospital in Kigali, where he was being visited by his attorneys.

Erlinder was said to be recovering in good condition Thursday, but his family still worries about his health.

The family told reporters in Washington that a week into his incarceration, all of their information comes secondhand through lawyers and U.S. government officials who have visited him. "There is so much confusing information," Usui said. "I have no idea right now if he's safe, if he's healthy."

Erlinder's overdose resulted in his second hospital stay in Rwanda. The first hospital trip came after Erlinder complained of fever and dizziness, possibly owing to his high blood pressure.

Meanwhile, members of Erlinder's defense team in Rwanda denied reports that he had confessed to the accusations leveled against him. One of his lawyers, Kenyan attorney Kennedy Ogetto, said Erlinder denied all the allegations.

Berglund said Rwandan reports of a confession, true or false, may be a hopeful sign that Rwanda is looking for a way to defuse potential diplomatic tensions between the East African nation and the United States, a close ally.

Erlinder's legal defense team includes Kurt Kerns, a Kansas attorney who ran afoul of Rwandan prosecutors by reportedly calling the police "punks." Rwandan Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga warned Wednesday that Kerns risks expulsion from the country. Kerns later apologized on national radio Thursday.

Kerns has been accepted by the Rwandan government to represent Erlinder, according to U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who has been in touch with Erlinder's family, along with U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn.

Usui and other family members met with State Department officials and contacted members of Congress Thursday, seeking the strongest possible diplomatic efforts to win Erlinder's release. They said that until Thursday, the U.S. government's posture had been far more tepid than in the case of a group of American hikers -- one from Minnesota -- who inadvertently wandered into Iran from Iraq and have been imprisoned there since last July.

National Lawyers Guild President David Gespass said he was appalled by the U.S. government's handling of Erlinder's case, which, for the last week, has appeared to be limited to offering him consular services as a U.S. citizen arrested abroad.

Usui said she hopes to meet with U.N. officials in New York on Friday to demand a more robust response from the international community.

Many of the allegations Erlinder has made against Kagame stem from Erlinder's representation of accused war criminals in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which operates under the auspices of the United Nations.

Erlinder's treatment does not bode well for other defense lawyers who work within the tribunal, said Chicago attorney David Thomas, one of Erlinder's law school professors. "I urge the U.N. to get involved," he said.

Staff writer Randy Furst contributed to this report. Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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  • Scott Erlinder, brother of St. Paul attorney Peter Erlinder, speaks at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 3, 2010, as Erlinder’s daughter Sarah Erlinder looks on.

  • Sarah Erlinder, daughter of St. Paul attorney Peter Erlinder, speaks at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 3, 2010, as Erlinder’s wife Masako Usui looks on.

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