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Claim of Peter Erlinder’s suicide attempt in Rwanda is disputed

A source close to William Mitchell law Prof. Peter Erlinder said poor conditions in his cell might have triggered an illness.

By RANDY FURST, KEVIN DIAZ and PAUL WALSH, Star Tribune staff writers

The overseas ordeal of Peter Erlinder took another bizarre turn on Wednesday when Rwandan police claimed that the St. Paul law professor attempted suicide in his jail cell and made a confession, while a source close to Erlinder in Rwanda said it was not true.

“It is complete poppycock,” said the source in a telephone interview from Rwanda.

On May 25th, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State on African Affairs Johnnie Carson gave a testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health in Washington, DC, and said:
“The political environment ahead of the election has been riddled by a series of worrying actions taken by the Government of Rwanda, which appear to be attempts to restrict the freedom of expression.”

“We have relayed our concerns about these developments to the Government of Rwanda, urging senior government leaders to respect freedoms of expression, press, association, and assembly.”

If Peter Erlinder is killed in the Rwandan jail, how will the US explain their lack of commitment to request his immediate release?

Erlinder was arrested Friday on allegations that he has denied the 1994 Rwanda genocide. He had traveled to the African nation to represent opposition presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, who herself has been charged with promoting “genocide ideology.”

The fast-changing developments on Wednesday had colleagues and relatives in the United States shaking their heads and arguing that Rwandan authorities were lying in an attempt to railroad Erlinder.

His daughter, Arizona attorney Sarah Erlinder, said the family does not believe her father tried to take his life. “I have no idea what the truth is,” she said, moments after meeting Washington staffers of Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who have tried to contact the Rwandan Embassy in the United States. “Knowing him, none of us believe that he would try to kill himself. It’s not him.”

Gena Berglund, Erlinder’s legal assistant, said Erlinder has never been suicidal. “He is a very strong, optimistic person,” she said.

Sarah Erlinder said her father, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law, carried medication for high-blood pressure and cholesterol, but that it may have been running low. Asked if he might have taken a non-lethal overdose to get out of jail and into medical treatment, she said, “It’s definitely possible … but we just don’t have any good information.”

Whatever happened, she said, the incident “makes us more concerned for his safety. It seems to be getting more critical by the day.”

U.S. Embassy officials visited Erlinder on Wednesday and said they remain in close contact with him while he’s in the hospital and in police custody. But a State Department spokesman said he couldn’t disclose any information about Erlinder’s hospitalization because of medical confidentiality.

Also Wednesday, Paul Rusesabagina, whose story was made famous in the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” issued a statement calling for Erlinder’s release. “Professor Peter Erlinder was in Rwanda doing his job as a lawyer,” he said. “In a civil society, that is not grounds for arrest.”

Rwandan police said they found Erlinder slumped over in his jail cell on Wednesday morning. The police said he had swallowed 45 to 50 pills and told them he was attempting suicide. Authorities said they intervened before the pills could take effect and took Erlinder to a hospital.

But the source in Rwanda described Erlinder’s condition as “fine,” adding: “He is healthy … it is clear that he did not make a suicide attempt.” The source said Erlinder was taken to the hospital because he was feeling ill, perhaps from abysmal jail conditions. “He has a foam mattress on a dirty floor with no pillow and one sheet and no mosquito net.”

Erlinder was interrogated further by police Tuesday, and told them he’d committed no crimes, the source said. He told them, however, that if anything he said had violated the law, he would “revoke” the statement. The source said police wrongly took this to be a confession. Instead, the source said, throughout the interrogation, Erlinder’s reaction to allegations he committed a crime were “denial, denial, denial.”

Erlinder is not denying that mass killings occurred in Rwanda, says Bruce Nestor, a Minneapolis attorney and friend. But he has asserted the current Rwandan President Paul Kagame is complicitous in the slaughter.

Despite pressure from Erlinder’s family and associates, State Department officials declined to call for his release or question the circumstances of his incarceration or medical treatment. Instead, they said they “expect the Rwandan authorities will accord Mr. Erlinder due process in a timely and transparent manner.”

The State Department statement added: “We expect the Rwandan authorities to continue to take Mr. Erlinder’s health into consideration.”

Erlinder’s backers say this falls far short of the diplomatic pressure that could be exerted by the U.S. government, a close ally that provides hundreds of millions of dollars in annual foreign aid to Rwanda.

“The U.S. State Department could stop this in 30 seconds,” said Daniel Mayfield, a defense attorney who served on the board of the National Lawyers Guild with Erlinder. “One phone call … ”

Randy Furst • 612-673-7382 Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753 Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report.

Source: Star Tribune

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