MINNEAPOLIS — A U.S. law professor jailed in Rwanda and charged with denying the country's genocide tried to commit suicide by swallowing dozens of pills in his prison cell, Rwandan officials said Wednesday, but his daughter said his family doesn't believe the claim.
Peter Erlinder, 62, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, has long been a sharp critic of the central African nation's president and even helped file a lawsuit accusing the one-time rebel leader of sparking the slaughter that erupted there in 1994.
The professor, who has a history of taking on unpopular causes, was arrested about a week after going to Rwanda to help with the legal defense of Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader running against President Paul Kagame in Aug. 9 elections. Ingabire is accused of promoting genocidal ideology
Erlinder is accused of violating Rwanda's laws against minimizing the genocide in which more than 500,000 Rwandans, the vast majority of them ethnic Tutsis, were massacred by Hutus in 100 days. He doesn't deny massive violence happened but contends it's inaccurate to blame just one side.
Rwandan police spokesman Eric Kayiranga said Erlinder swallowed 45 to 50 pills in his prison cell Tuesday night and the attempt may lead courts to charge the professor again, this time with attempted suicide.
"He mixed between 45 and 50 tablets in water and took the concoction in an attempted suicide," Kayiranga said. "However, the police managed to intercept and took Erlinder to hospital before the drugs could take their toll on his body."
Dr. Daniel Nyamwasa, the director of the National Police Hospital where Erlinder is being treated, said his condition was improving Wednesday. He said Erlinder may have swallowed his prescription antidepressants and cholesterol-reducing medication.
Erlinder's daughter, Sarah Erlinder, an Arizona attorney, said his family learned of his hospitalization from U.S. embassy officials in Kigali and his lawyers Wednesday. She said neither his attorneys nor embassy staff heard about it until three hours after it happened.
The hospitalization and the police claim have the family fearful that "they've already attempted to hurt him or they're laying the groundwork to kill him. ... His situation has gone from unimaginably horrible to even worse," his daughter said.
Embassy officials and his lawyers were able to see him in the hospital. They weren't able to get much information on why he was there, she said, but she was sure he didn't try to kill himself.
"No. I don't believe it at all," she said.
Erlinder was also hospitalized Monday after falling ill during interrogation.
Nyamwasa said Erlinder told him he attempted suicide because he was scared of the long sentence he could receive if convicted. He could face up to 25 years in prison, according to lawyers working for his freedom.
"He intimated to me that his worry was to go to jail for life," Nyamwasa said.
His daughter is in Washington to press for her father's freedom. She said she and his wife, Masako Usui, qwew scheduled to hold a news confernece Thursday and meet with officials State Department officials.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said he had no information on why Erlinder had been hospitalized.
"We have visited and spoken with Peter Erlinder. He was taken to the hospital this morning and remained there overnight for observation. His U.S. and Rwandan attorneys have had access to him and we expect that due process will be accorded by the Rwandans in a timely and transparent way," Crowley said.
Peter Erlinder leads a group of defense lawyers at the U.N.'s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The tribunal is trying alleged masterminds of the genocide, which stopped after Kagame's mostly Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu-led government.
"Peter is a tenacious and vigorous advocate, to say the least, so when he is assigned to take on the responsibility of defending someone on a serious criminal case he's going to give that person the very best defense he can," said Eric Janus, the dean at William Mitchell. "And for Peter that means digging into the historical record."
Erlinder, a former president of the progressive National Lawyers Guild, has worked on numerous cases involving the death penalty, civil rights, alleged government or police misconduct and defense of political activism.
He also has spoken out on behalf of people facing terrorism charges, including Mohammed Abdullah Warsame, a Canadian citizen who in 2009 pleaded guilty in federal court in Minneapolis to aiding al-Qaida. He is also advising Chippewa Indian bands in northern Minnesota in a revived dispute over treaty fishing rights.
In late April, Erlinder helped file a lawsuit in Oklahoma accusing Kagame of ordering the 1994 deaths of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira, igniting the genocide. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the widows of the former presidents, who were killed when their plane was shot down.
Erlinder has made the allegations before, citing tribunal documents and books by former tribunal prosecutors. Kagame's government denies the accusations.
Erlinder's wife and daughter said he knew he was taking a risk by going to Rwanda but probably thought he had taken sufficient precautions by contacting the State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Kigali and Minnesota's congressional offices.
But Rwandan government spokeswoman Louise Mushikiwabo compared Rwanda's laws to those in some European countries against denying the Holocaust.
"We understand that human rights activists schooled in the U.S. Bill of Rights may find this objectionable," Mushikiwabo said in a statement. "But for Rwandans – schooled in the tragedy of the 1994 genocide and who long for peace – Mr. Erlinder's arrest is an act of justice."
Kagire reported from Kigali, Rwanda. Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.