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WASHINGTON - Peter Erlinder said he feared for his life from the first moments after his arrest in a Rwandan hotel where he was alone having a breakfast of croissants and coffee.
The St. Paul law professor recalled being taken away by "six burly guys." He said: "My conclusion was their intent was to disappear me, not arrest me."
He gave the first personal account of his 21-day prison ordeal in Rwanda after stepping onto U.S. soil Tuesday at Washington's Dulles Airport, on his way to a homecoming with his family in Minnesota. Erlinder told the Star Tribune that he is convinced he might not be alive but for his insistence on contacting the U.S. Embassy in Kigali during a search of his hotel room.
"I think that what happened was that when I had the presence of mind to demand that the embassy come to observe the search, it was at that moment that the disappearance fell apart," he said.
Enjoying a breakfast of eggs and potatoes at Dulles, the 62-year-old human rights lawyer said he had known he could be a marked man in Rwanda, where questioning the Tutsi government's account of the 1994 genocide at the hands of the Hutu majority is a crime punishable by more than 10 years in prison.
Erlinder cited a recent African press report chronicling a Rwandan government "hit list" naming opponents of Rwanda President Paul Kagame, a U.S.-trained Tutsi military officer.
"I was one of the people on this list," Erlinder said.
A Rwandan government spokesperson called Erlinder's statements "outrageous, fact-free assertions."
"It is difficult to take Mr. Erlinder's claims seriously at this point. He appears to have read one too many Robert Ludlum novels on the flight back to the U.S.," Yolande Makolo wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune. "The facts of his case are not complicated. Genocide denial is a crime in Rwanda, just as Holocaust denial is in Germany."
Arriving in Minnesota
Bystanders in Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport flashed confused looks at the scrum of about three dozen reporters and anti-war activists who greeted Erlinder when he landed with his daughter Sarah Erlinder in Minnesota later Tuesday afternoon. The crowd included several members of Women Against Military Madness who held signs welcoming him home.
"It's OK," Erlinder whispered to his wife, Masako Usui. "The nightmare is over."
Released on medical grounds, Erlinder said he'll be headed to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester soon for treatment of unspecified ailments.
Erlinder, who has raised questions about Kagame's alleged war crimes in proceedings before the United Nation's International Criminal Tribunal, said he had felt safe returning to Rwanda, which was reportedly healing from the massacres that took an estimated 800,000 of its citizens.
"They told me and they told you that the old days in Rwanda of Rwandan dictatorship were over," said Erlinder, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law. "I made the mistake of believing them."
He said he had notified U.S. and Rwandan authorities of his intention to return and help Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu leader who is challenging Kagame in the Aug. 9 elections.
Ingabire was arrested in April on a charge similar to Erlinder's -- denying the genocide of nearly a million Tutsis.
"Not once did anyone in an official capacity say this was not a wise idea," Erlinder said of his decision to re-enter Rwanda.
But he said he found out otherwise on the morning of May 28.
Although he had rebooked his return trip airline ticket to leave a day later, a Kenya Air official told him they thought he had already left the country. "The records showed that I had departed Kigali on the morning of the 27th," he said.
He got the same story from U.S. officials in Rwanda after his arrest:
"The first time the embassy knew that I was in trouble was at that moment, because when I talked to this desk officer, this consular officer, he said, 'Oh, we didn't know you were still in Rwanda. We thought you had left yesterday.'"
Erlinder recounted being interrogated for hours, then cuffed in a hotel hallway while authorities searched his room. He also was questioned with a U.S. official present.
His original holding cell was a bare room with a concrete floor, no bed and only a bucket for personal hygiene. Although he was suffering from stress and high blood pressure, he said it could have been worse.
"The individuals I interacted with in the police station, including the supervisors, the guards in the prison, were very helpful," he said. "Without them, I wouldn't have survived, because for five days, I didn't have any food coming from the embassy or anywhere else. I was dependent on guards going out in the street and buying me a banana. ... By Rwandan standards, I was treated pretty well."
Edwina Sagitto, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, told the Associated Press, "The embassy ... provided him food every day, and medicine from his doctors in the United States every day."
Erlinder acknowledged suffering from "emotional and psychological issues," but he declined to discuss Rwandan government reports that he tried to commit suicide in jail by taking an overdose of anti-depressants and drugs he keeps for high blood pressure and other ailments.
His family has suggested it was a hoax to get out of prison and into the more humane conditions of a modern hospital. He was hospitalized four times during his incarceration.
At one point, Erlinder said, he met with a State Department psychiatrist flown in from Ghana. He said he is not sure why that happened.
"One of the things that was disconcerting is you never knew what was going to happen from one moment to the next," Erlinder said.
Initially denied bail, Erlinder was eventually transferred to a former Belgian fortress prison. Although it was "notorious as being a terrible place," he said, it proved to be an upgrade. It had a bed, and a cellmate shared his family's food when Erlinder's own family supplies delivered through the U.S. Embassy didn't show up.
The prison, it turned out, was where Rwanda held its accused Hutu war criminals for trial before the International Tribunal, where Erlinder was a defense lawyer. "There are ironies within ironies," he said.
Health concerns led to release
Erlinder was in the hospital last Thursday when a Rwandan judge finally released him out of concern for his "physical and mental health."
He left Saturday after some bureaucratic scuffles with Rwandan authorities, who expect him to return to face charges.
Erlinder said he doesn't believe he will be formally charged, because the accusations against him are largely based on his work before the International Tribunal, for which he says he has immunity.
But he didn't rule out a return trip if the Rwandans press their case.
"I promised the court I would do what the court required of me, and I of course will do that," Erlinder said. "I'm a lawyer, I'm not a person who skips their responsibilities. But we'll have to let some time pass to see what those responsibilities actually are."
For now, though, it's all been like a bad dream: "It's one of those nightmares that people who travel overseas have."
Staff writer Eric Roper contributed to this report. Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.