Interview

Locked Up in Rwanda

Locked Up in Rwanda

On Friday, American lawyer C. Peter Erlinder was arrested by the Rwandan government for allegedly denying the country’s 1994 genocide. He had come to Kigali to meet with his client, opposition leader and hopeful presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, who had been arrested on similar charges of negationism earlier this year. Many have speculated that the government is turning up the pressure on the opposition in advance of presidential elections, scheduled for August 9, 2010, which incumbent President Paul Kagame is widely expected to win.

Erlinder had caught the attention of the government far earlier than this most recent trip, however. A professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Erlinder first began working on Rwanda in 2003, when he took up the case of Aloys Ntabaluze, a defendant accused of crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania. After intense investigations, his defense team drafted what court documents call an "alternative explanation of the tragic events in Rwanda during the four year war." The defense’s trial brief includes a section linking then-General Kagame to the shooting down of a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira in 1994 — an assassination that triggered the genocide. "[I]mportantly from the standpoint of fixing central responsibility for the massacres that the assassination of President Habyarimana touched off, these acts were undertaken with full knowledge on the part of Gen. Kagame that resumption of the war would cause massive civilian casualties," the defense states (italics from original text).

There has long been ambiguity surrounding the downing of Habyarimana’s plane and the events that precipitated the genocide. And though ordinary Rwandans and international conspiracy theorists have long debated the mysterious and cynical assassination, any attempt to investigate or prosecute the facts under the current Kagame government is a non-starter.

So it was little surprise that Erlinder’s digging put him on the Kagame government’s bad side, says the lawyer’s daughter, Sarah, in an interview with Foreign Policy. And Erlinder did more than dig: In late April, when Kagame visited the United States to offer a commencement address at Oklahoma Christian University, Erlinder and several other American lawyers attempted to serve the Rwandan president with a lawsuit brought by the widows of Habyarimana and Ntaryamira, alleging his involvement in the 1994 assassination.

Sarah Erlinder argues that her father’s incarceration is unjust and shines a light on a county far too long believed to be democratic — a darling of foreign donors for its recovery from genocide. Instead, she says, this confirms what many of Kagame’s critics have long said: that this champion of democracy has an authoritarian side, now becoming all the more apparent.

Foreign Policy: Take us back to how this started. When did your father arrive in Rwanda on this most recent visit?

Sarah Erlinder: He [headed to] Rwanda from Brussels on Sunday [May 23], where he had been at a defense conference that they’d organized for the people working with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda [ICTR]. He arrived in Rwanda with the intention of visiting his client, Victoire Ingabire, and joining her legal team. Ingabire [an opposition candidate] had previously been arrested and accused of [denying the genocide].

FP: How did you hear about the arrest?

SE: There was an email list that my dad was using to send updates on work. We woke up on Friday morning to an email from someone that we didn’t recognize saying that he had been arrested. I did a quick Google search, and there were already a couple of articles from the African press. I then called my dad’s wife, who had also gotten the e-mail and was also confused.

We got on the phone to the embassy and then to the State Department trying to figure out [what happened.] The first step was just ensuring that they knew, and they had [indeed] been aware. We have also received an update from an American lawyer who wasn’t there for the arrest but has met with my dad [since], and who [asked my father] what happened.

The two of them [my father and the other American lawyer] were supposed to leave on Thursday, but the prosecutor summoned Ingabire for questioning on Friday, so they extended their trip.

On Friday morning, the police came to the hotel [where my father was staying] and it sounds like they came to his room and arrested them there. They’ve kept the room sealed and have inventoried some of his personal belongings. The embassy told us that someone from the embassy was present with him when he was arrested.

The American lawyer and a Rwandan colleague were able to meet him on Saturday. But they were denied access on Sunday. On Monday, two Kenyan lawyers were able to get credentials, so they will be able to go back in and see him. They weren’t able to get into the interviews [that the Rwandan police were doing with my father before]. The American got credentials today.

FP: What has been the response of the State Department to the case so far?

SE: The first response from the State Department was that there were certain steps that they follow to make sure that he is physically safe. But after that, Americans are arrested abroad all the time, and they have to let process play out — which we found unacceptable. This isn’t a college kid who got in a fight on spring break in Cancún; this is much more serious. And there is not really a fair, open, judicial process. He’s really being held based on statements and writings that he made in the courts representing his client at the ICTR.

The embassy has been responsive to general updates on his well-being. He was brought to the hospital and spent the night there [for high blood pressure] and is back in the jail there now. The embassy sent someone to be with him at the hospital for a while.

FP: Tell us about his client, Aloys Ntabaluze, who he has been representing at the ICTR.

SE: He’s been representing [this client] since 2003. He had a friend and colleague who was involved in the ICTR [back then] and suggested that he might be interested. So, my father put his name on the list and got assigned to a case. He went to Arusha in June, 2003, for the first time and saw that the trials had already started and that he wasn’t the second-chair counsel but the lead.  

He didn’t know a lot more than the average interested person about Rwanda or what had happened there. That’s the other thing that’s poignant about situation: The Rwandan government has made it sound like he has this agenda, as if he didn’t go there as attorney but rather only trotting the globe for his agenda. But everything he’s talked about, he uncovered while investigating the case.

[In fact, he began the] Rwanda Document Project online, where anyone can see the documents that he’s found. He was trying to make this as open as possible and really shine a light on a closed society and on a very taboo topic. He was putting real hot-button issues [out there]. And if you say, "perhaps the Hollywood Hotel Rwanda narrative that everyone thinks was the way that things happened — it didn’t happen exactly that way," then you’re a genocide denier.  

I was so surprised the first time a reporter asked me whether he denied the genocide. This is obviously someone who doesn’t know him. He would never do that to the victims, to their families. But is he trying to get information that hasn’t been available before to the public? Yes, and that’s obviously what’s put him in danger now and on the bad side of the Kagame government.

FP: In speaking with the lawyers on the ground, is there speculation that his arrest could be linked with the upcoming presidential elections?

SE: They definitely think so. Timing wise, it’s a perfect storm. Leading up to the election, the government is really continuing to tighten down. Even charging the opposition candidate in the first place — in a free society, we let someone vote for who they want.

Also, Paul Kagame was in Oklahoma last month and my dad and a couple of other lawyers [tried to serve] him a lawsuit under the Alien Torts Claim act on behalf of widows of Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, both of whom were killed in the plane crash that touched off the genocide there. There are definitely things you can trace [that he did] that would make the Kagame government angry.

My dad was aware of this risk when he went there. He contacted his congressional delegation, the State Department, and the embassy before going to draw attention to his safety. From what we’ve heard from the attorneys [in Rwanda who had seen him,] he was preparing for the worst, but he can’t believe that they did this.

FP: The lawsuit against Kagame — was that something that your father began working on separately in the United States?

SE: He was working on that on a different front. The things that he had uncovered through his representation at the ICTR — he kept meeting and talking to more and more people who had known these things for a while and who couldn’t talk about them or bring them to light.

The Rwandan government has used intimidation and violence against its own people for a long time, and so the one bright side of this situation is that there are a lot of people who wouldn’t ordinarily be paying attention [who are listening now] — because they’ve gone far enough this time, and with a U.S. citizen, that people are rightfully outraged. [It is] not acceptable that a local [judicial] process [against my father] would play out there. He’s [been arrested for a] speech crime allegedly committed as an attorney. This is not what a free and open society would allow.