KIGALI, Rwanda — An American lawyer helping defend a Rwandan presidential hopeful against charges that include promoting a genocidal ideology was arrested Friday and charged with genocide denial, police said.
The U.S. National Lawyers Guild demanded Peter Erlinder's immediate release and said the government was trying to hamstring the legal defense of Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader running against President Paul Kagame in Aug. 9 elections.
Kagame has been lauded abroad for social and economic reforms and is expected to win another seven-year term but human rights groups say his administration has an ironclad hold on power and quashes opposing views.
"There can be no justice for anyone if the state can silence lawyers for defendants whom it dislikes and a government that seeks to prevent lawyers from being vigorous advocates for their clients cannot be trusted," said David Gespass, the president of The U.S. National Lawyers Guild.
Rwanda's 1994 genocide claimed the lives of more than 500,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The massacres ended when mostly Tutsi rebels led by Kagame defeated the mostly Hutu extremist perpetrators.
Ingabire, a Hutu, returned to Rwanda in January to contest elections after 16 years of living abroad. She says she returned to Rwanda because the country needs an open discussion to promote reconciliation.
She immediately visited a memorial to Tutsis killed in the 1994 genocide and asked why Hutus who also died weren't remembered. She was arrested and freed on bail but her passport was seized and she cannot leave Kigali. If convicted, Ingabire, 41, could be sentenced to more than two decades in prison.
Her case has become a test of where Rwanda stands in its effort to move past the genocide – and how much freedom the government will allow.
Erlinder is the president of an association of defense lawyers at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that is trying the masterminds of the 1994 genocide. He is also a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota.
He came to Rwanda four days ago and "has been publicly saying that there was no genocide in Rwanda," said police spokesman Eric Kayiranga.
"It has nothing to do with diplomacy, it is totally a criminal case," said Kayiranga when asked whether the arrest could cause a diplomatic spat with the U.S.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said her office is working with the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda to make sure that Erlinder "is treated well and that the legal process works quickly and fairly so he can come home."
Klobuchar said Friday she has spoken to U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda W. Stuart Symington, a longtime friend, and he told her that embassy officials met with Erlinder soon after his arrest and reported that he is in good health.
"I know Professor Erlinder as a long-standing member of Minnesota's legal community. Our thoughts and prayers are with him and his family," Klobuchar said in a statement.
Steve Linders, the spokesman for William Mitchell College of Law, said that officials at the school were in contact with the U.S. State Department and the offices of several Minnesota members of Congress "trying to get facts in place and monitor the situation."
"Our primary concern is obviously for Professor Erlinder's safety, and we're hoping the situation is resolved fairly as well as promptly," Linders said.
Linders said Erlinder's work in Rwanda was not sponsored by the school, but said William Mitchell professors have a long history of outside legal work for a variety of causes.
A lawyer since 1979, Erlinder, 62, has been on the William Mitchell faculty since 1982. He has worked as a litigator or legal consultant on numerous high-profile cases involving the death penalty, civil rights, alleged government or police misconduct and defense of political activism.
The St. Paul resident assisted in the legal defense of Mohammed Abdullah Warsame, a Canadian citizen who in 2009 pleaded guilty in federal court in Minneapolis to aiding al-Qaida. He also represented Sami al-Arian, a former University of South Florida professor who pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiring to aid terrorists.
Last November, Erlinder traveled to the Netherlands in order to aid in the defense of a Somali man from Minneapolis being held there on U.S. terrorism charges. He also recently advised Chippewa Indian bands in northern Minnesota in a dispute over treaty fishing rights.
Linders said Erlinder has worked on legal issues involved Rwanda for some time, and had traveled to the country prior to his current trip.
The U.S. State Department said in a March report on Rwanda that citizens' rights to change their government are "effectively restricted" and cited limits on freedoms of speech, press and judicial independence.
Associated Press writer Patrick Condon in Minneapolis contributed to this report.