Professor Peter Erlinder is no stranger to the international community. He is a distinguished Criminal Defense professor at William Mitchell College of Law, and a lead Defense Council for the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda based in Tanzania. He was recently arrested by the Rwandan government on allegations of ‘genocide denial’ while defending Victoire Ingabire-a Hutu politician and current presidential candidate who is charged with ‘propagating genocide ideology’ as well. Prof. Erlinder sat down with The African News Journal’s Ndze Ntuv Evaristus Tunka to talk about his ordeal in Rwanda.
ANJ: Thank you for talking with The African News Journal today. Most people might consider you a rogue lawyer, especially from your defense of such personalities as Mohammed Warsame, Sami Al-Arian, and now Victoire Ingabire….
Erlinder: First I do not consider myself a rogue lawyer. I stand for the legal process and for justice. I think it is very important that we allow justice to take its course in any legal issue.
ANJ: So what made you decide to defend Victoire Ingabire?
Erlinder: Well, Victoire Ingabire has argued that both Hutus and Tutsis were responsible for the genocide in Rwanda, and that it was unjust to blame only one side for the genocide. I share this idea, as my research and findings from UN documents, US government documents, and trial documents at the ICTR on what happened in Rwanda show that both the Hutus and the rebel led FDR were responsible for mass killings in Rwanda. I think that all those who were responsible, be they Hutus or Tutsis should face justice.
ANJ: When you were arrested on May 28th, what was going through your mind? What were you thinking?
Erlinder: Well this is something that in order to talk about, I might probably have to spend some time thinking about it, and I’ll probably write about it at some point; but I wasn’t expecting to be arrested. However once I was arrested, my main concern was not to disappear and my view is that; had I not taken the initiative to force my captives to allow me to talk to the US Embassy, I’m not sure anybody would have known what had happened to me.
ANJ: How were you treated in the Rwandan jail and what were the conditions like?
Erlinder: What I’ve said to everybody that I have talked to, is that the people in Rwanda treated me quite well. The individuals that were charged with taking care of me treated me well under the circumstances. The conditions in the detention facility I was in were quite difficult per standards; that is no toilets, no beds, no blankets, and no food but this was quite normal to Rwandans, although most Rwandans in jail had family members who would bring them food, and what they needed to survive, but because I didn’t have that, and because the US Embassy was not so reliable, my situation was particularly difficult in that situation, but not because I was mistreated, but because I didn’t have the support that other detainees had. They kept me in a separate cell and the guards would go out and buy me food on the street so that I could have something to eat and some water to drink and no one beat me or mistreated me. But I saw other people being treated not so well, which made it more difficult for me psychologically, because I was really at the mercy of young kids with AK-47s.
ANJ: There were rumors of reports by Rwandan Prison Officials, stating that you tried to overdose on your medications, while you were behind bars. What is your reaction to these rumors?
Erlinder: Well I don’t have any comments on it in detail, but I do have medical problems that if I had been born and raised in Rwanda, I would have probably been dead by forty; but my problems are currently and I’m undergoing treatment, and as long as I get that treatment, then I’ll be ok. But being kept indefinitely in detention facilities with that kind of wasn’t really possible. That’s kind of what the danger was.
ANJ: After your release, the Rwandan government put out an official statement, stating that you were released on medical grounds, and they didn’t and have not dropped the charges against you…have you been formally charged by the Rwandan government?
Erlinder: The actual fact is that in the Rwandan system, it’s not necessary to be charged to be a suspect. Although I haven’t been formally charged, I’m still a formal suspect and the investigation I understand is continuing.
ANJ: Some Rwandans especially the Tutsis, who saw a huge population of their tribesmen murdered during the Rwandan genocide look at you, and might wonder why you are defending opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, who the Kagame regime has charged with alleged genocide denial and promoting genocide ideology. What would you say to them?
Erlinder: The best evidence produced by the Rwandan government/UN prosecutor during 7-years of trial resulted in the Tribunal finding that there was no conspiracy to commit genocide or ethnic killings at the level of the military or government leadership. The Rwandan government is in a difficult position because the majority of the population has a different ethnic and historical background because the leaders in Rwanda now are English speaking Rwandans who actually were raised and even born in Uganda. So that among people who had lived in Rwanda during the time they spoke French rather than English as a European language, the situation is difficult politically. I’m interested in seeing a peaceful democratic development in Rwanda, and I hope that, that happens.
ANJ: With regards to a democratic Rwanda, President Kagame has insisted that since his rise to power, Rwandans have been given the opportunity to participate democratically in the country’s politics; that he has encouraged decentralization has ensured a fair representation of women in government; and has secured economic growth for Rwanda. What is your assessment of this assertion?
Erlinder: I think my arrest is a pretty good indication about the range of discussion and debate that is possible in Rwanda. And I do think that the Rwandan government has many accomplishments. Kigali is a beautiful city and far away more developed than it was in 2004, which is the last time I was there. But on the question of opposition parties, there are none that are meaningful, and any significant disagreement with the current government is dangerous and under those circumstances, I think that the Rwandan people are going to have some difficulty in having a meaningful debate. What got Victoire Ingabire arrested was that on the day that she arrived in Rwanda, she went to the genocide memorial and she made note that the Rwandan government says that the umm….I’m using the word ‘Rwandan genocide’ because its common, not because I understand it the way every one does. She asked the question whether, because the government said it was genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, which would mean that Hutus who defended Tutsis–and there were many; the question was “where is the memorial to the dead Hutus?” The Rwandan government insists that ONLY Tutsi were victims, but describes 1994 as: “a genocide of Tutsi and moderate Hutus” Ingabire got in trouble for pointing out that there are no memorials to Hutu victims, whether “moderate” or not. There are none in the country, and anyone who suggests that Hutus were also victims during that period has the same faith as Victoire Ingabire and-me. And suggesting that both sides committed crimes is a crime, according to the Rwandan government. That’s what my arrest shows.
ANJ: Some Rwandans and even some member states of the African Union have questioned why the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is based in Tanzania; arguing that it would best address crime and issues of the Rwandan genocide if it was housed in Rwanda. What is your reaction to this?
Erlinder: When you’ve had a civil war, and one side has won the civil war, how can you set up a neutral tribunal of the sort in the country? I don’t think that would be possible in any country. And to suggest that it is possible in Africa, I think it’s unlikely. Also I want to make it clear, that I have never said that large numbers of Tutsis were not killed. However the most recent evidence, not by me, but by Allan Stam at the University of Michigan and Christian Davenport of Notre Dame. They analyzed all the reports that all the NGOs had, and all the reports that the Rwandan government had, and they came to the conclusion that there were twice as many Hutus killed as Tutsis. We have to think through what really happened. But I can say that from the experience of other countries, if there is a civil war and one side wins the war, it’s unlikely that they’re going to give the side they defeated the benefit of doubt, and that happened in the US civil war as well. The US controlled the South militarily for twenty years or more and for a long time, it wasn’t even possible for us to discuss the idea that the Confederate states had a significant that could be defended, and they were also blamed for everything. When there’s a civil war, that’s what happens, different sides tell different stories.
ANJ: Are you still the Defense Council for Victoire Ingabire?
Erlinder: No, I was never given the opportunity to defend her. I had applied for accreditation from the Rwandan Bar, and it was never granted, and even when I got to Rwanda to represent her, I was arrested and sent to jail. She does have a different Defense Council, however, I have kept in touch with her every now and then…and would be willing to give her my advice if she requests it.
ANJ: Thank you again for meeting and talking with The African News Journal, and also thank you for your commitment with the ICTR, your stand for justice, and for your continuous defense of the suppressed.
Erlinder: Thank you too, and it was marvelous that the ICTR stood behind me in my time of need. My opinion is that the support I got from around world was significant in my release; and of course, you know that there have been assassinations and the lawyer who replaced me as Ingabire’s defense attorney was arrested and tortured, so I consider myself lucky.