FREE SPEECH ZONE | Shades of Gray: Listening To the Infamous “Genocide Denier”


There were only a dozen or so of us gathered at the May Day Bookstore basement at 3PM on Monday afternoon. The hastily-scheduled event left little time to get out the word that the recently returned political prisoner/law professor Peter Erlinder was speaking about his arrest and imprisonment in Rwanda. The professor quickly explained as he began his presentation: he wanted to thank some of his supporters who wrote/called/demonstrated on his behalf during his recent ordeal – and he brought along with him the “real hero”, one of his Kenyan attorneys who risked his own freedom and life to stand up on Erlinder’s behalf.

Erlinder explained: “Before I traveled to Rwanda, an attorney representing [one of the many political prisoners in Rwanda] was safe. After I was arrested and imprisoned, any attorney coming in knew they might also suffer the same fate.” Thus, Gershon Otachi, one of two defense attorneys under the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, showed special courage in standing up to represent Erlinder in his time of need. 

I had heard Peter Erlinder about three years ago when he spoke at May Day about his work defending one of the Hutu military generals who was charged with genocide and conspiracy to commit genocide. It was my first exposure to hearing any variation on the theme of “what happened in Rwanda?” The dominant (and only story) given coverage by the US media was that of victimization of the Tutsi peoples by the Hutus -almost out of the blue – despite their living side-by-side for years.

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In that previous presentation the William Mitchell law professor served as a historian. Erlinder patiently explained about the colonial history of central Africa and described the role of the Belgian, German, French, and English colonizers in the area and the practice of selecting a small group of local people to become the ruling elites under their overall control. He explained the way the Belgian colonizers gave educational and employment benefits to people they defined as Tutsi using artificial designations such as those who owned 10 cows or more rather than traditional tribal identities. What counted was not one’s birth heritage but rather the “tribal” identity given to one on their identification card or by the type of work they did. Understanding the “divide and conquer” strategy behind the colonial history helped me better understand some of underlying reasons behind the bottled-up violence and resentment that was orchestrated by both sides.

The missing piece for me was about President Kagame’s own background in all of this. In Erlinder’s current presentation, complete with maps of Africa and the specific areas of Rwanda, he explained how Kagame’s rebel army, the RPF, invaded Rwanda from Uganda in 1990, failing to capture the capital in Kigali primarily because of the government’s support from several European nations. (The government was headed by a Hutu, the majority group.) After that failure, Kagame retreated back into Uganda, receiving at least three huge shipments of arms and munitions and increasing his armed forces from 2,500 to 25,000 over the next three years.

It is believed that Kagame’s forces shot down the airplane carrying the Presidents of both Burundi and Rwanda in 1993 that, in turn, triggered much of the killing now identified as genocide. Erlinder does not deny the massive killing which occurred – he only says it is not black and white, the “good guys” vs the “bad guys”. The dominant storyline we’ve been told through the media and governmental sources paint the Hutus as perpetrators and the Tutsi as victims. A variation of this story says that some “moderate” Hutus were also killed yet Erlinder claims there are no monuments in the present Kagame-run Rwanda to any Hutu victims. Erlinder says his research shows only shades of gray. There was killing on both sides, depending on which group was dominant within certain areas.  It is a complicated story but until or unless the truth comes out about complicity on both sides, there will be no healing there, Erlinder contends.

But, so far, only Hutus have been prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). However, Erlinder claims that Carla del Ponte, the chief UN Prosecutor for ICTR, told him that she was in the room when US officials passed on instructions that Kagame was NOT to be prosecuted for his role in the assassinations of the two Heads of State. The clue as to why, Erlinder contends, lies in the geopolitical struggle for regional and resource dominance.

During the post-colonial period between 1960 and 1990 with the rise of a generation of “independent” African leaders, there was an ideological battle reflective of the Cold War between “the West” and the Soviets. Elites jockeyed for power by aligning with one side over the other. The US remained stupefyingly silent to the dictatorial abuses of leaders like Mobutu (Zaire/Congo) and Mugabe (Zimbabwe) because they were steadfast “allies” against “the communists”. With the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, some of that competition shifted to between various western powers.

Now, with the rise of Chinese wealth and power, the struggle has resumed – primarily between the US empire (in decline) and the ascendency of that of China’s influence. How else can one explain the inordinate attention paid to the tragic deaths in Darfur (in Sudan) while ignoring the vastly greater numbers of rapes and murders by gangs and military forces in eastern Congo? Erlinder said more are killed “every four months” in the conflicts raging in eastern and central Congo than have died in the past number of years in Darfur.

So we protect Kagame, hoping that he will side with US interests over those of China. If only the need for truth didn’t get in the way – and the desire of human rights lawyers like Peter Erlinder and Gershon Otachi to offer a defense for those facing predominately political charges. According to Erlinder, the US is clearly complicit in the massive killings that occurred in 1994 having learned “the lesson” from the failed intervention in Somalia just prior to these new killing fields not to intervene directly in these “civil war”-type struggles. That didn’t prevent our supplying hundreds of tons of arms to Kagame’s RPF forces just months before all the killings occurred.

It was six years ago when Erlinder, in preparing the defense of one of his Rwandan clients, discovered the collection of UN documents which helped him piece together a narrative quite different than the one put forth by the media and many governments. He has collected them and made them available for others to read at the website It is hard to change the dominate storyline which has been established in our minds for the past 30 years but Erlinder is hopeful in seeing signs that it is beginning to crack and change.

And, as part of a Foundation started by the hero of the Hotel Rwanda story (The Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation), Erlinder and others are pushing for a Truth and Reconciliation Process similar to what happened in the post-apartheid period in South Africa. But for Erlinder, no reconciliation will be forthcoming until there is mutual acceptance of responsibility on all sides. Otherwise, each side continues to demonize each other that will lead only toward more violence.

Despite the shock and injustice of his arrest and subsequent jailing, Erlinder told us “I was treated better than Guantanamo prisoners – I wasn’t waterboarded or had a bag over my head. I wasn’t held for six years in solitary waiting for trial like one of my clients here in Minneapolis.” Although conditions in the first jail were brutal for this lawyer in his late 50s, he said the second Rwandan jail he was held in was “better than the conditions some of my clients experience in Hennepin County or other US lockups.”

So lets look and listen for stories that challenge the dominant narrative about genocide and who is responsible as well as who is complicit – but let’s especially focus on what role our own foreign and military policies contribute to these horrors – and then work for change here at home, not just “over there”.