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Erlinder’s arrest puts focus on fierce fight over record of Rwandan genocide

Peter Erlinder’s arrest in Rwanda opens doors to a world of intrigue in which the Minnesota lawyer and that country’s leader are locked in a struggle over the historical record of genocide.

Search the Internet, and you’ll find a wealth of sites lauding Paul Kagame as the president who led Rwanda to achieve one of Africa’s most remarkable success stories.

You also will find news reports characterizing Peter Erlinder, the William Mitchell law professor, as a passionate and effective champion for the underdog and the outcast.

There is truth in both characterizations.

But there is much more to say. Erlinder’s arrest in Kagame’s country last week opens doors to a world of intrigue and suspicion in which the Minnesota lawyer and the former rebel leader are locked in a fierce struggle over the historical record of the Rwandan genocide.

Erlinder has been bent for years not only on implicating Kagame but also on exposing what he calls a cover-up by the U.S. Pentagon of the true story behind the genocide in which some 800,000 people were slaughtered.

For his part, Kagame — even while he took bows on international stages — was alarming the U.S. State Department with a harsh crackdown on alternate versions of what was behind his country’s bloodbath.

Peter Erlinder
Peter Erlinder

The context for their clash is as complicated as a story can be — too complicated to report in a single news article. But Erlinder’s case illustrates important parts of it.

“This case gives us a window to see what is going on in Rwanda,” said Michelle Garnett McKenzie, an attorney with Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis who has worked to help reconcile post-war conflicts in other parts of Africa.

So let’s look into the window.

Confrontation in Oklahoma
The latest Erlinder-Kagame clash started on April 30 in Edmond, Okla., where Kagame was to deliver a commencement address at Oklahoma Christian University.

On the day before the president’s appearance, Erlinder and two other attorneys filed a wrongful death lawsuit [PDF] in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, alleging Kagame had ordered political assassinations that triggered the genocide in April, 1994.

Erlinder tried to personally serve Kagame with the legal papers. This is his account of what happened, quoted in Montreal-based Global Research:

“The U.S. Secret Service and University staff informed Kagame that we had a valid summons and complaint that we wished to serve upon him. We were instructed we could not approach Kagame for security reasons, with which we agreed, but Secret Service informed us that security requirements permitted service on any authorized person on his staff. . . . Members of his staff refused to accept documents and the University ordered process servers, and lawyers, to leave campus.”

Kagame gave his speech, congratulated 10 Rwandan graduates and left the ceremony early, surrounded by bodyguards.

Three weeks later, Erlinder took another jab, speaking at the Second International Criminal Defense Lawyers Conference in Brussels. He vowed to “increasingly take the offensive” in reshaping the history of what had happened in Rwanda. You can see a video of his talk here.

Set for high drama
So the stage was set for high drama before Erlinder flew to Rwanda the next day.

Erlinder’s prime mission was to work on the case of Victoire Ingabire, a leading opposition figure who had lived in exile in Europe until recently. She claimed that crimes had been committed against her Hutu people during the genocide as well as against the Tutsis. But only the Hutus were being prosecuted and punished, she said.

Kagame is a Tutsi. His regime arrested her on April 21, charged her with propagating “genocide ideology” and other crimes, and released her on bail.

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame
REUTERS/Toby Melville
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame is shown speaking at a news conference at Marlborough House in central London on March 8.

Ingabire’s claim squared with the theme Erlinder had sounded for years while he worked as the lead defense counsel for top genocide suspects at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

Here was another chance to thrust it into global view.

A cover-up?
Erlinder, 62, had taken on mighty adversaries in his crusade to recast the generally accepted history of the genocide.

One of them is the Pentagon, which he has claimed was complicit in the Rwandan massacres and in a subsequent conspiracy to cover up Kagame’s role. His list of alleged co-conspirators includes the United Nations and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the United Kingdom and its former Prime Minister Tony Blair, officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations and a Canadian official.

“The ‘Rwanda Genocide’ cover-up has been going on for at least a decade,” Erlinder said in 2008 in a guest column for The Jurist, a publication of the University of Pittsburgh Law School.

He alleges that the Pentagon had backed Kagame years before the genocide and that it “could have stopped the carnage with a phone call.”

Since the massacre, he said, the Pentagon has worked to manipulate proceedings of the ICTR in order to conceal war crimes committed by Kagame.

Erlinder had some basis for the claim that Kagame and his people committed war crimes. A French judge said in 2006 that Kagame should stand trial for the political assassinations that set off the fighting, the BBC reported. And in 2008, a Spanish judge issued arrest warrants for officers in Kagame’s army, accusing them of genocide, terrorism and crimes against humanity.

Those judgments did not speak, though, to Erlinder’s allegation that the Pentagon was involved too. Erlinder’s column said that part of his claim was corroborated in an interview with J. Brian Atwood, who was administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Rwandan conflict.

Atwood, now dean of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute, denied that claim in a sharply worded rebuttal printed by The Jurist.

“Peter Erlinder, obviously is leveling unsubstantiated charges as part of his defense effort,” Atwood wrote. “In the process, he has manufactured quotes from me and accused the entire Clinton Administration of covering-up the alleged misconduct of Rwanda’s sitting President.”

Atwood could not be reached for comment on Thursday. But earlier in the week he told the Associated Press that while he disagrees with Erlinder’s characterization of history he nevertheless considers the St. Paul attorney’s detention to be outrageous.

“He’s aggressive and one can question his methods, but he’s doing his job as a defense lawyer,” Atwood told the AP. “I just think the Rwandan government is making a huge mistake and doesn’t understand our, or international, systems of jurisprudence. It’s just wrong to hold defense lawyers.”

Kagame’s different faces
In the decade since Kagame, 52, became Rwanda’s president, he has been showered with honors and tributes. Last year alone, he won a Clinton Global Citizen Award from the former U.S. president’s initiative, an international medal of peace presented by Pastor Rick Warren at Saddleback Church in California, a “Children’s Champion Award” from the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and a “Most Innovative People Award” at the Lebanon 2020 Summit.

You have to look deeper to see a different picture of the celebrated Rwandan leader.

Human rights organizations had long worried over some of the same questions Erlinder was trumpeting.

In its investigation of the genocide, Amnesty International documented numerous killings by the Rwanda Patriotic Front, the force Kagame led to victory. The RPF also is suspected of having committed war crimes and crimes against humanity before, during and after the genocide, the organization says.

“But the ICTR, which was established to prosecute crimes committed by individuals regardless of affiliation, has not prosecuted a single member of the RPF or their civilian superiors in the past 14 years,” Amnesty said.

Meanwhile, in Rwanda, there have been allegations of secret killings, torture and disappearances of political dissidents. And despite Kagame’s claimed support for freedom of the press, his government behaved “like a predator” toward journalists, Reporters Without Borders said in 2005.

“Rwanda is still a country where press freedom does not exist,” it said.

Now, with Kagame facing a contested election in August, his regime is cracking down on opposition, Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs testified before a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on May 25.

Kagame’s government has suspended two newspapers, denied the visa of a Human Rights Watch researcher, arrested opposition leaders and blocked two political parties from registering, Carson said.

Genocide ideology
Further, human rights organizations say that thousands of Rwandans have been accused of “genocide ideology,” the charge leveled against Erlinder and his client.

Rwanda’s genocide ideology law [PDF] prohibits, among other actions, “marginalising, laughing at one’s misfortune, defaming, mocking, boasting, despising, degrading createing confusion aiming at negating the genocide which occurred, stiring up ill feelings, taking revenge, altering testimony or evidence for the genocide which occurred.”

Those convicted under the law face sentences of up to 25 years and fines of up to 1 million Rwandan francs (about 1,700 U.S. $).

Some regulation of expression was expected in post-genocide Rwanda. After all, free speech — over the radio — was used to incite the killing spree in 1994. Carefully constructed limits could be understood.

But this law goes way beyond the scope of careful limits, said McKenzie, the human rights attorney at The Advocates in Minneapolis.

The statute itself is an affront to human rights, she said. And Kagame has used it to silence all but his own views.

Regardless of what Erlinder has said or done, she said, “his case points out what thousands of Rwandans have experienced: This law is used as a cudgel to keep them quiet.”

Deflated hope
The fact that Kagame no longer gets the benefit of the doubt reflects a sorry let down of the hope so many had placed in the Rwanda and its leader as the country struggled to recover from its horror.

The hope may never have been justified by reality, though, McKenzie said, speaking from the wisdom of experience in Liberia and other war-torn countries.

“We want to believe that the conflict ends and all is well… but nobody has 100 percent clean hands in these events, and the move forward is never simple,” she said. “That region is rife with conflict and there is a lot of ambiguity over who is responsible for what. There aren’t clear good guys and bad guys.”

Sharon Schmickle writes about national and foreign affairs and science. She can be reached at sschmickle [at] minnpost [dot] com.