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American lawyer Peter Erlinder back home recounts his ordeal in Rwanda

Erlinder feared for his life ‘the whole time’

In his first detailed account of his 21-day Rwanda imprisonment, Peter Erlinder said he felt his life was in peril. He’s on his way back to a homecoming with family in Minnesota.

Peter Erlinder said he feared for his life from the first moments after his arrest in a Rwanda hotel where he was alone having a breakfast of croissants and coffee.

Taken away by “six burly guys,” the St. Paul law professor recalled, “My conclusion was their intent was to disappear me, not arrest me.”

“For five days, I didn’t have any food coming from the embassy or anywhere else. I was dependent on guards going out in the street and buying me a banana… By Rwandan standards, I was treated pretty well.”
Peter Erlinder

Giving the first personal account of his 21-day prison ordeal in Rwanda after stepping onto U.S. soil Tuesday at Washington’s Dulles Airport – on his way back to a homecoming with his family in Minnesota – Erlinder told the Star Tribune that he is convinced he might not be alive but for his insistence on contacting the U.S. Embassy in Kigali during a search of his hotel room.

“I think that what happened was that when I had the presence of mind to demand that the embassy come to observe the search, it was at that moment that the disappearance fell apart,” he said.

The 62-year-old human rights lawyer said he had known he could be a marked man in Rwanda, where questioning the Tutsi government’s account of the 1994 genocide at the hands of the Hutu majority is a crime punishable by more than 10 years in prison.

Erlinder cited a recent press report chronicling a Rwandan government “hit list” naming opponents of Rwanda President Paul Kagame, a U.S.-trained Tutsi military officer.

“I was one of the people on this list,” Erlinder said.

A Rwandan government spokesperson did not respond to an email from the Star Tribune Tuesday seeking comment.

Erlinder, who has raised questions about Kagame’s alleged war crimes in proceedings before the United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal, said he felt safe returning to Rwanda, a country that was reportedly healing from the massacres that took an estimated 800,000 of its citizens.

He said he had notified both U.S. and Rwandan authorities of his intention to return last month to help Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu leader who is challenging Kagame in the nation’s Aug. 9 elections.

“Not once did anyone in an official capacity say this was not a wise idea,” said Erlinder, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law.

But on the morning of May 28, he found out otherwise.

Though he had rebooked his return trip airline ticket to leave a day later, an a Kenya Air official told him they thought he had already left the country. “The records showed that I had departed Kigali on the morning of the 27th,” he said.

He got the same story from U.S. officials in Rwanda after his arrest:

“The first time the embassy knew that I was in trouble was at that moment, because when I talked to this desk officer, this consular officer, he said, ‘Oh, we didn’t know you were still in Rwanda. We thought you had left yesterday.'”

Erlinder recounted being interrogated for several hours, then cuffed in a hotel hallway while authorities searched his room, than being interrogated again with a U.S. Embassy official present.

His original holding cell was a bare room with a cement floor, no bed, and only a bucket for personal hygiene. Although he was suffering from stress and high blood pressure, he said it could have been worse.

“The individuals I interacted with in the police station, including the supervisors, the guards in the prison, were very helpful,” he said. “Without them, I wouldn’t have survived, because for five days, I didn’t have any food coming from the embassy or anywhere else. I was dependent on guards going out in the street and buying me a banana… By Rwandan standards, I was treated pretty well.”

Though Erlinder acknowledged suffering from “emotional and psychological issues,” he declined to discuss Rwandan government reports that he tried to commit suicide in jail by taking an overdose of anti-depressants and other drugs he keeps for high-blood pressure and other ailments.

His family in the U.S. has suggested it was a hoax to get out of prison and into the more humane conditions of a modern hospital. It would be one of four hospitalizations during his incarceration.

At one point, Erlinder said, he met with a State Department psychiatrist flown in from Ghana. He said he is not sure what the purpose of the visit is.

“One of the things that that was disconcerting is you never knew what was going to happen from one moment to the next,” Erlinder said.

Initially denied bail, Erlinder was eventually transferred to a former Belgian fortress prison. Though it was “notorious as being a terrible place,” he said, it proved to be an upgrade. It had a bed, and a cellmate shared his family’s food when Erlinder’s own family supplies delivered through the U.S. Embassy didn’t show up.

The prison, it turned out, was where Rwanda held its accused Hutu war criminals for trial before the International Tribunal, where Erlinder was a defense lawyer. “There are ironies within ironies,” he said.

Erlinder was in the hospital last Thursday when a Rwandan judge finally released him out of concern for his “physical and mental health.”

He left Saturday after some bureaucratic scuffles with Rwandan authorities, who expect him to return to face charges once they’re filed.

Erlinder said he doesn’t believe he will be formally charged, because the accusations against him are largely based on his work before the International Tribunal, for which he says he has immunity.

But he didn’t rule out a return trip if the Rwandans press their case.

“I promised the court I would do what the court required of me, and I of course will do that” Erlinder said. “I’m a lawyer, I’m not a person who skips their responsibilities. But we’ll have to let some time pass to see what those responsibilities actually are.”

For now, though, it’s all been like a bad dream: “It’s one of those nightmares that people who travel overseas have.”

Source: Star Tribune – Kevin Diaz and Jeremy Herb.

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June 22, 2010   No Comments

Rwandan General Kazura allegedly implicated in assassination attempt on fugitive Nyamwasa in South Africa

by David O’Brian

The saga of the assassination attempt on the exiled Rwandan General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa may have taken another twist, according to sources in South Africa and Rwanda. These sources told AfroAmerica Network that the South African police has already the group of six suspects, mostly ex Rwandan Patriotic Army officers, talking. The suspects are allegedly implicating General Jean Bosco Kazura as the ring leader of the conspiracy to assassinate the Rwandan General Kayumba Nyamwasa.

According to the same sources, it appears that General Jean Bosco Kazura was sent on a mission by the Rwandan Government to travel to South Africa and organize the assassination while the South African police was busy with the opening of the FIFA Soccer World Cup.

After the death squad was put in place, General Jean Bosco Kazura quickly returned to Rwanda, leaving the squad under the command of Francis Gakwerere. To divert the attention, the Rwandan Department of Military Intelligence arrested General Jean Bosco Kazura upon his return. The motive of the arrest was to be able to deny the involvement of the Rwandan government in case the assassination attempt was discovered by the South African security services.

Contrary to the usually secrecy within the RPF, the arrest of General Kazura, under the pretext of unauthorized trip outside the county by a high ranking military officer, was publicized allegedly to create a smokescreen.

If these allegations turn out to be true, the South African and Rwandan Government may be facing a serious diplomatic row.

[AfroAmerica Network]

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June 22, 2010   10 Comments

Peter Erlinder to hold a press conference to discuss his ordeal in Rwanda

Peter Erlinder is scheduled to return to Minnesota on Tuesday, June 22. He will have his first formal media availability at a press conference in the Conservatory at William Mitchell College of Law at 11 a.m. on Wednesday, June 23.

In addition to taking questions about and discussing his experience in Rwanda, he will talk about his work as a defense attorney for the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda (ICTR). His wife, Masako Usui, and his daughter, Sarah Erlinder, will also be available at the press conference.

For more information, contact:

• Gena Berglund, International Humanitarian Law Institute of Minnesota, +1-651-208-7964

• Bruce Nestor, Attorney, +1-612-991-9488

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June 22, 2010   No Comments

US State Department denies visa to Kenyan lawyer who helped secure Erlinder’s release from Rwandan prison

Nairobi – Professor Peter Erlinder, the American attorney charged in Rwanda of denying the “Tutsi Genocide”, told a press conference Sunday in Nairobi that Mr Kennedy Ogetto, one of his two Kenyan defense attorneys, has been refused a visa to travel to the U.S. with his client.

Another Kenyan lawyer, Gershom Otachi, will travel with him following a visa grant in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. The two Kenyans represented Erlinder during his three-week captivity in Rwanda’s jails.

Prof. Erlinder and the two Kenyans are defence lawyers at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, formed in 1995 to try key suspects from the genocide and civil war that rocked Rwanda in the mid 1990s.

Erlinder was arrested in Kigali when he went to represent Rwandan political opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, who is also accused of denying genocide. He insisted it was time to revise the Rwanda genocide history from the one presented by President Paul Kagame and his Western backers.

“My special request to Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton is to let my lawyers to travel to the US to help me explain to the world what happened,” Erlinder told the press, at which he also attacked the US embassy in Kigali.
Related:
‘US Embassy didn’t help’ says US Lawyer Peter Erlinder after release from Rwanda jail.
U.S. lawyer Peter Erlinder fears for his life after Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa shooting

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June 22, 2010   No Comments

U.S. lawyer Peter Erlinder fears for his life after Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa shooting

Nairobi – The American attorney Prof. Peter Erlinder released from Rwandan prison fears for his life claiming that the shooting of former Rwanda envoy to India Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa shows that he is at risk as well.

Professor Peter Erlinder told a press conference Sunday in Nairobi that he fears for his life even while in Kenya following Saturday’s attempted assassination of Rwandan military defector Kayumba Nyamwasa in South Africa, blamed on Rwanda’s intelligence services.
Gen Kayumba is recovering in a Johannesburg clinic with two bullets lodged in his body.

Erlinder, who was arrested in Kigali when he went to represent Rwandan political opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, who is also accused of denying genocide, said he believes he is still alive because he is a white man from a powerful country.

“Imagine if I was not a mzungu. Imagine if I was not from the US. Imagine if I was not a law professor,” he told journalists.

It is known that Rwandan opponents are executed inside or outside Rwanda. For example, Colonel Theoneste Lizinde was murdered in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1996 and Mr. Seth Sendashonga, former Rwandan Interior Minister, was assassinated in Nairobi in 1998.

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June 22, 2010   1 Comment