The 800,000 people who died in Rwanda's bloody 1994 massacres unquestionably deserve justice. Unfortunately, the Rwanda government's decision to jail Minnesota attorney Peter Erlinder raises serious questions about the fitness of the African nation's judicial system to determine who's guilty of genocide and mete out punishment accordingly.

Erlinder, a 62-year-old William Mitchell College of Law professor who has made a career out of representing unpopular clients, was taken into custody May 28 in Rwanda. He had volunteered his summer vacation for a dangerous assignment: defending Victoire Ingabire, who is charged with promoting genocidal ideology. Ingabire also happens to be running against Rwandan President Paul Kagame in the upcoming Aug. 9 elections.

Erlinder, a high-profile Kagame critic and an internationally known expert on the Rwandan bloodshed, now finds himself facing a similar charge: genocide denial. In a shrill statement e-mailed to the Star Tribune this week, Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Louise Mushikiwabo said Erlinder is "a conspiracy theorist who seeks to willfully promote his extremist views on Rwandan soil.'' Jailing him, she said, is an "act of justice.''

The reality is that Erlinder's arrest is anything but just. Rwandan officials' clumsy attempts to spin it otherwise only undercut global confidence in their leadership.

An important precedent was set in the 20th century, which saw two world wars and millions of innocent lives lost in the Holocaust and other malicious acts of "ethnic cleansing.'' War criminals accused of some of the century's ghastliest crimes were tried in international legal forums. Due process was accorded to even the most despicable defendants. The reason? The outcome's validity -- findings of guilt or innocence -- depends on the fairness of the process that comes before it.

A vigorous defense is a critical part of the process to arrive at the truth. Defense attorneys challenge assumptions, ask uncomfortable questions and advocate for those society despises. It's not an easy role, but it's one whose value is widely recognized by civilized societies. Erlinder is carrying on that tradition in representing Ingabire.

Erlinder undeniably has provocative opinions about the Rwandan massacres. But charging him with denying these deaths doesn't make sense. He's not saying the 1994 genocide was a hoax. His interest is in assigning blame fairly. As part of that, he's examining the historical record and asking hard questions, some of which are aimed at Kagame. Earlier this year, Erlinder and two other lawyers filed a fiery lawsuit accusing Kagame of setting off the bloodshed by ordering the deaths of two African leaders.

Erlinder's arrest sends exactly the wrong message. It suggests that Kagame has something to hide, and it reveals high-level political interference in the central African nation's justice system. It's certainly no coincidence that Erlinder is representing Ingabire, a high-profile opposition leader.

Erlinder could face 25 years in prison simply for being who he is -- a dedicated defense attorney. His rapid release would help quell questions about Rwanda's courts and mitigate the global public relations disaster its government has inflicted upon itself.