Erlinder is sent to prison after Rwanda denies bail

  • Article by: JEREMY HERB , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 7, 2010 - 9:10 PM

The St. Paul professor will remain in custody while being investigated by Rwandan officials, who promise that his health needs will be met.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said Monday that she is asking for an expedited appeal in the case of Peter Erlinder, the St. Paul law professor who has been held in Rwandan custody since late last month.

The 62-year-old attorney appeared in court Monday and was denied bail while Rwandan officials investigate charges that he denied the country's 1994 genocide and published articles that they say threaten the nation's security. Erlinder pleaded not guilty on Friday.

"I am deeply disappointed that Rwandan authorities have decided to unnecessarily prolong Professor Erlinder's detention and believe this decision should be reconsidered as soon as possible," Klobuchar said Monday. The senator said she will contact government officials to urge an expedited appeal and "to convey my strong belief that he should be released."

After the hearing where his bail request was rejected, Erlinder was transferred from the jail where he had been staying in for the past week to a general prison in Kigali.

Erlinder could be imprisoned for another month until his appeal is heard.

News that bail had been denied came as a blow to Erlinder's family members, who gathered at his home in St. Paul to await the judge's decision. Erlinder's wife, Masako Usui, and his brother, Scott Erlinder, along with area supporters, received a brief e-mail update from Erlinder's legal team in Kigali mid-morning.

"We're disappointed that Pete won't be released from jail or granted bail," Scott Erlinder told reporters. "He's expressed his willingness to cooperate by any condition imposed by the court of Rwanda, and we feel he should be released immediately. His family members are extremely concerned for health and his safety."

In Monday's hearing, a Rwandan judge rejected Erlinder's argument that his physical and mental health would be jeopardized by continued imprisonment. Instead, the judge sided with the prosecution's request to detain Erlinder during the investigation.

'An act of justice'

In a statement that implied the government may not relent, Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said: "The prosecution of Peter Erlinder is not a political tactic. It is an act of justice. Revisionists and ideologues who traffic in genocide denial will be prosecuted and imprisoned."

Erlinder's lawyers argued at a Friday hearing that his health could deteriorate if he remained in prison, and asked that he be returned to the United States for medical treatment. Erlinder has said he suffers from depression and high blood pressure.

Mushikiwabo said Erlinder would be given all necessary medical support he requires. "His family should rest assured that he is being kept in humane and safe conditions," Mushikiwabo said.

Erlinder entered Rwanda on May 23 to represent opposition presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, who also has been charged with promoting "genocide ideology."

A law professor at William Mitchell College of Law, Erlinder has called Rwandan President Paul Kagame a war criminal and said Kagame is partly to blame for the genocide that killed more than 800,000 Rwandans in the space of several months.

The slaughter was born of a long-standing conflict between Rwanda's two major tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi. The Hutus were in the majority at the time. Most of those killed were Tutsi rebels. Kagame was the leader of the Tutsi's Rwandan Patriotic Front, which ousted the Hutus from power and effectively ended the genocide.

In April, Erlinder helped file a wrongful death lawsuit against Kagame that was filed in federal court in Oklahoma, where Kagame has ties to a university.

Erlinder leads a group of defense attorneys for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which is trying alleged leaders of the Rwanda genocide.

Since his arrest, Erlinder has been hospitalized twice, first after complaining of fever and dizziness and then when he swallowed a nonlethal dose of prescription pills in his cell. Rwandan police called it a suicide attempt, but his family said it was a strategy to escape the poor conditions of his jail cell for a hospital.

By late last week, international pressure had begun to mount and the U.S. State Department called for Erlinder's release on compassionate grounds, without defending his actions.

But the Rwandans have said they will continue to pursue their prosecution of him.

"The Rwandan government takes no pleasure from Mr. Erlinder's plight," the government said in its statement, "but this needs to be understood: flagrant and orchestrated breaches of our genocide ideology laws will be met with the full force of the law."

Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723

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