Jailed American lawyer Erlinder appears in Rwanda court
Kigali – The American lawyer Peter Erlinder, appeared in court for the preliminary hearing late Friday. He was charged with denying and minimizing the 1994 Rwandan Genocide and publishing articles that threaten the country’s security. He pleaded not guilty to all charges levelled against him during the five-hour court hearing.
Erlinder had come in the country to represent Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza in her case which also involves genocide denial. Ingabire was also in court Friday to attend Erlinder’s hearing.
Draped in a long overcoat, Prof. Erlinder was flanked by a team of 9 legal representatives: his own four lawyers (an American, two Kenyans and a Rwandan) and five lawyers appointed by the Rwandan Bar Association.
The Prosecutor argued that Erlinder’s case is a serious one and there is strong evidence to back up the accusations ranging from his publications and utterances where he continuously and explicitly minimises and denies the Genocide. The accused also refers to President Paul Kagame as a genocidaire who downed the plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana, thereby triggering the Genocide. He added that Erlinder intentionally preaches that the Genocide was not planned.
Prof Erlinder told the court that he was not aware that his publications back in America could be tantamount to Genocide denial.
“It is the first time I have come to know that my obscure publications back in America were that bad and could amount to genocide denial,” Erlinder told the court.
He said that it may be a case of misinterpretation or misunderstanding.
He said President Kagame’s party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, might dispute his writings, but “not all Rwandans.”
Prof. Erlinder said he had ignored warnings from his tribunal colleagues not to travel to Rwanda, where he had spent several days helping opposition leader Victoire Ingabire in her presidential election challenge before his May 28 arrest. He told the court that by travelling to Rwanda he was not aware that his past publications and speeches would get him into trouble with the Rwandan government.
“I believed the country has grown democratically, but if I am detained and prosecuted, my case will be confirm what is being said out there,” Erlinder said.
Appearing weak in court, Erlinder said that he has trust in the country’s institutions but his worry was his ill health. He said he was too old and too weak to stay in jail. He pleaded with Judge Maurice Mbishibishi to conditionally release him and allow him to travel back to the United States for appropriate treatment as his health is deteriorating. He promised to comply with any conditions the court sets and insisted he would cooperate with the court to interpret his writings, but would do so out of jail.
The prosecution insisted Erlinder should be provisionally detained as investigations into his case continue. “As prosecution, we have strong reasons to ask for his provisional detention because we see it as the only means to protect the accused as investigations into his case continue,” said Prosecutor Richard Muhumuza. “This way, he can always be available when prosecution needs him, and it is also to ensure that the accused doesn’t escape,” he said.
But Erlinder and his defence team argued that the accused is ready to cooperate and play by the rules the court will set, as long as he is allowed to access treatment.
He said he has not been mistreated during his time in jail and confirmed that doctors were there for him all the time, but also had not had contact with anyone while in Rwandan custody.
He added that he could not stay in jail anymore.
“I haven’t talked to anyone in my family, I haven’t listened to the radio or watched TV since I was arrested. I haven’t talked to my doctor,” he said.
As the focus shifted to the health of Erlinder, Prosecutor Richard Muhumuza, who is also handling the Ingabire case, argued against release on bail, but agreed not to object if a medical examination determined Erlinder needed treatment in the United States.
Prof. Erlinder who is undergoing an emotional and psychological breakdown, was upset and almost decided not to leave the courtroom when the judge Maurice Mbishibishi, who is also handling Ingabire case, pronounced that bail would be decided on Monday, meaning that he still has to spend at least another weekend in custody.
If convicted, Prof. Erlinder faces up to 25 years in prison.
The hearing continues on Monday.