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Kagame's American Political Prisoner

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The story of Peter Erlinder, an American law professor and leading figure of the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda, reads like a macabre thriller with an unresolved ending. He arrived to Rwanda on May 28th to help defend a jailed opposition presidential candidate, and then was promptly arrested and detained on specious charges of genocide ideology by the government of President Paul Kagame.

Since then, he has been deprived access to defense, suffered violations of due process, and subjected to treatment which led to an apparent attempted suicide, leaving him in a precarious mental state (click here to read one of the dystopic court rulings). Despite the State Department's formal request for his release and his deteriorating health condition, on Thursday Erlinder will await a ruling from Rwanda's High Court regarding the possibility of his release on bail.

Many observers with close knowledge of the case assure that the charges are entirely politically motivated, with no grounds or factual basis. "On a case like this, nothing's going to happen unless the government officials of Rwanda make a decision on their own to release him," said Erlinder's lawyer Kurt Kerns. "All the judges there are figureheads. (...) They do what they are told to do."

Peter Erlinder has not committed any crime, but rather has been jailed and persecuted for exercising his duties as a defense lawyer at the ICTR -- an environment in which many of his former colleagues on both sides of the cases would attest to the intense nature of these proceedings, and the extraordinary vulnerability and risks faced by those with enough courage to take on unpopular and difficult cases. Part of his work has led him to unearth a number of legal documents from the United Nations and other official organizations, and collect them for review at the website known as the Rwanda Documents Project. Much of this evidence casts doubt on the official story of the 1994 genocide as told by the current authorities, but in no way does Erlinder's research constitute a crime.

Nevertheless, a disgusting backlash has come out against Erlinder, somehow justifying his grotesque imprisonment because these voices disagree with his political opinions. Right here on The Huffington Post, the seemingly well-intentioned genocide survivor Freddy Umutanguha misconstrues the Erlinder case and argues that "every Rwandan I know would place our right to protect our nation's peace and stability ahead of Mr. Erlinder's right to endanger them." But is that really what Erlinder was doing? Of course not. The mere suggestion that Hutus, as well as Tutsis, were systemically slaughtered -- sometimes by the people currently in power -- appears to be a politically inconvenient discussion that Kagame wants to conceal underneath arbitrary laws of the thought police.

Even worse still is a recent article in the Globe and Mail by Gerald Caplan, an academic with a clear axe to grind against Erlinder and his client, Victoire Ingabire. Caplan floats a variety of rumors without evidence, makes unreasonable comparisons between holocaust denial laws in Israel and genocide ideology laws in Rwanda, and even raises draconian views about their rights to defense. Some people are prone to comparing cases from true rule-of-law courts with political cases from deficient judiciaries, and it is precisely these kinds of arguments which can fuel the violence and persecution of defense council, preventing the advance of justice on the continent.

In response to Caplan's article, Alan J. Kuperman of the University of Texas wrote a letter to the editor stating: "It is Mr. Erlander's job to make that argument as a defence counsel at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. His argument has prevailed at the court, which has acquitted everyone accused of pre-planned 'conspiracy to genocide,' issuing convictions only for crimes committed after the assassination of Rwanda's Hutu president. (...) If Mr. Caplan truly wants to promote peace in Rwanda, rather than the myth that past violence was one-sided, he should support the rights of Ms. Ingabire and her lawyer."

Erlinder may indeed hold political opinions at the fringes of the debate, and many articles he has published may draw intense disagreement and criticism. However to see this man ignored by the president of the United States and consigned to unlawful imprisonment by the lowest elements of the Kagame sycophants because of his political views is a grave disappointment. Everyone is entitled to the right to defense and basic human rights, and this individual has not committed the acts he is accused of.

The increasingly authoritarian government of Paul Kagame is causing significant damage to its international reputation with this case, especially given the fact that now only more people will be interested in viewing all of the evidence compiled by Erlinder.

The people of Rwanda have had a difficult past, and now once again have a difficult present, but the way forward is not to shun the processes of international justice, but rather to work through them toward truth, reconciliation, and peace.