“I had a breakdown,” Peter Erlinder told a Rwandan court on Monday, explaining his mental state when he couldn’t talk with lawyers or family members.

Adam Scotti, Star Tribune

Rwanda frees Peter Erlinder on bail

  • Article by: JEREMY HERB and KEVIN DIAZ
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • June 17, 2010 - 10:49 PM

WASHINGTON - Peter Erlinder is coming home.

The St. Paul law professor, who was held in a Rwanda prison for three weeks, was freed on bail Thursday, based on what a government spokesman said was "concern for his physical and mental health."

Erlinder should be in the United States by Friday.

"He's so happy to be free," said his wife, Masako Usui.

Erlinder, who was arrested last month on charges that he denied that nation's genocide, has been hospitalized four times since his arrest, including one apparent suicide attempt and an episode Wednesday resulting from his refusal to take prescription blood pressure medication.

Erlinder, 62, was in the hospital Thursday and did not attend his bail hearing but was released on Thursday afternoon, according to Usui.

Usui said she was still in disbelief when she first heard the news. "My first reaction was, what does it mean?" she said. "I want to believe it. I want to see him."

Brother Scott Erlinder said his wife was the first to get word from the U.S. Embassy in Kigali that Peter had been granted bail. "We're all taking a huge deep breath," he said.

Although Erlinder is free to leave the country, Rwandan prosecutor Martin Ngoga said the release on bail "in no way diminishes the seriousness of the charges." Ngoga said the prosecution plans to move forward with its case, which could carry a 10- to 20-year prison sentence if Erlinder is found guilty.

No vindication

"Bail on health grounds cannot be mistaken as vindication for Mr. Erlinder," Ngoga said in a statement. "This will not deter the prosecution as we finalize the case against Mr. Erlinder. He will soon be called to defend his record of genocide denial that insults the people of Rwanda and inflames those who seek to harm us."

U.S. officials describe his release as "unconditional." But Rwandan government spokesman Igor Marara told the Star Tribune in an e-mail that Erlinder is "required to come back for either further investigation or substantive trial.

"The logic is that he has been given bail on grounds of medical records ... that show among other things [a] history of mental instability," Marara said.

It's unclear how the Rwandans would ensure his return.

Erlinder family members said they are struggling over whether Erlinder should continue to fight the charges against him in Rwanda.

"Knowing Peter, he's a pretty honorable guy, and if he thought that was the right thing to do, he would do it," Scott Erlinder said. "But before any of that happens, the family would really want to talk to him. We have an awful lot of respect for him, but we also love him."

Usui said that while she's happy her husband is returning home, she wants his name cleared. "I hope it's done with Rwanda, but if it's not, we should still keep fighting against the charges," she said. "I'm still in a fighting mood."

Erlinder went to Rwanda to help Victoire Ingabire, an ethnic Hutu opposition candidate running for president against incumbent Paul Kagame, a former Tutsi military officer. Ingabire was arrested in April on a charge similar to Erlinder's -- denying the 1994 genocide of nearly a million Tutsis at the hands of the Hutus. Erlinder, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law and human rights attorney, has contended in court documents and essays that Kagame's forces participated in war crimes as well.

Arrest was a shock

Still, Erlinder's May 28 arrest shocked his family, as did his apparent suicide attempt a week later, using a cocktail of medications he carried for depression and high blood pressure. Though his family described it as a hoax, Erlinder later told a Rwandan judge, "I lost all hope to live."

He was initially denied bail last week, but Erlinder's lawyers appealed that decision, leading to Thursday's ruling.

As the 21-day incarceration drew greater international attention, the pressure to release Erlinder mounted. The State Department had asked that he be freed on "compassionate grounds" and several members of Minnesota's congressional delegation had worked quietly for his release.

With criticism of Erlinder's arrest coming from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said she was surprised the Rwandans kept him as long as they did.

"This is a country that's trying to establish itself as a democracy, as a player in the marketplace," said Klobuchar, who has maintained contact with W. Stuart Symington, the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda. "You just don't go arresting attorneys, no matter how unpopular their clients are."

Bill Harper, chief of staff to Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who has been working with the family, said, "We look forward to him returning to Minnesota."

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said the Erlinder family had "shown tremendous courage, but when they were in my office their suffering was very clear. I'm relieved it's over."

Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723

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