Minnesota law prof Peter Erlinder says he’s relieved to be home after ordeal in Rwanda

By Steve Karnowski, AP
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Minnesota law prof detained in Rwanda returns home

MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota law professor who was imprisoned in Rwanda for challenging the official version of the country’s 1994 genocide got a big hug from his wife and cheers from supporters as he arrived home Tuesday.

“The stories of my demise were only slightly exaggerated,” Peter Erlinder said after arriving at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

The Rwandan authorities released him on medical grounds late last week, but did not drop their investigation, and he said at the time that he would return there to face charges.

Flanked by his wife and daughter, Erlinder credited Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Betty McCollum, U.N. officials and a worldwide show of “globalized people power” for getting him freed.

Erlinder, 62, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, was in Rwanda to help defend an opposition presidential candidate when he was arrested May 28. He was accused of violating Rwandan laws against minimizing the country’s 1994 genocide, though he has not been formally charged.

The professor said individual Rwandans he encountered, including his jailers, were all “wonderful” toward him “in spite of the lies they’ve been told about how the genocide happened.” That drew a plea from his wife, Masako Usui, not to stir things up again, which was only partially successful.

On its surface, Erlinder went on, the Rwandan capital Kigali looked much improved since his last trip there in 2004. And he noted many world leaders have said Rwanda has changed for the better into a more democratic country.

“I made the mistake of believing them,” Erlinder said.

Erlinder said his imprisonment showed Rwanda hasn’t changed, and he compared the authorities in the East African nation to the East German and Soviet secret police.

“I have seen how it works and they make the Stasi and the KGB look like amateurs,” he said.

But Erlinder deferred most questions about his ordeal and his plans until a news conference set for Wednesday.

The press officer at the Rwandan embassy in Washington, Carol Rugege, was away from her office and not available for comment, a man answering the phone at the embassy said Tuesday.

Erlinder already had been involved with Rwanda through his work as a defense lawyer with the Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which was created by the U.N. Security Council to prosecute those accused of responsibility for the genocide.

He disputes the generally accepted version of history, which holds that roughly 800,000 Rwandans, the vast majority of them ethnic Tutsis, were massacred by extremist Hutus over 100 days. The mass killing began after President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was brought down in April 1994.

Erlinder told reporters in Nairobi, Kenya, on Sunday he’s never denied there was a genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda, but he contends large numbers of Hutus were killed too, maybe more Hutus than Tutsis. He also disputes the view that the slaughter was planned long before Habyarimana’s death. He said the U.S. government has systematically suppressed evidence of what actually happened, and that documents from the U.S. and U.N. that recently have been made public, as well as evidence that has emerged through the tribunal, back him up.

(This version CORRECTS Erlinder quote about Stasi and KGB to reflect he said ‘amateurs,’ not ‘angels.’)

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