Minn. law professor held in Rwanda says he believes officials there wanted him to disappear

By Steve Karnowski, AP
Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Professor: Rwanda officials wanted me to disappear

ST. PAUL, Minn. — A Minnesota law professor said Wednesday he believes Rwandan authorities intended to make him disappear and never planned to prosecute him on allegations that he minimized the country’s 1994 genocide.

Peter Erlinder, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law, said he believes no one would have learned of his fate if he hadn’t been able to summon a U.S. embassy official to his hotel when he was arrested May 28. He said nobody at the embassy knew he was still in Rwanda because airline records somehow had been altered to show he had left the morning before.

He said he owes his life to thousands of people around the world who demanded his release after word got out. He returned home Tuesday after about three weeks in custody.

The professor spoke at the law school in what had been billed as a briefing for reporters, but shaped up more as a 35-minute lecture on his ordeal, as well as recent Rwandan history. He drew applause from supporters, faculty, staff and students who attended.

Erlinder, who had gone to Rwanda to help defend an opposition presidential candidate, ran afoul of authorities because he disputes the official version of what happened in 1994. He has not been formally charged and was released on medical grounds late last week. Rwandan authorities said their investigation would continue.

Asked if he stood by his pledge to return to Rwanda if required to do so, Erlinder chose his words carefully. If the Rwandan authorities ask him to return, he said, he expects the United Nations would assert his immunity from prosecution.

“I’ll follow the law. You can make of it what you will. And my thinking is the law of the U.N. is I have immunity from prosecution,” he told The Associated Press afterward, adding that he had no idea how the international legal process might play out.

Erlinder has been involved with Rwanda since 2003 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. Tribunal authorities last week said he should have diplomatic immunity.

The generally accepted narrative of the genocide holds that roughly 800,000 Rwandans, the vast majority of them ethnic Tutsis but also moderate Hutus, were slain by extremist Hutus over 100 days as part of a planned massacre. The mass killings followed the shooting down of President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane in April 1994.

Erlinder said he has never denied that there was a genocide against Tutsis. But he said U.N. and U.S. documents he obtained through his work, and testimony before the tribunal, show that the official version is wrong.

For example, he said, killings by Hutus of Hutus who were protecting Tutsis would not be genocide under the U.N. definition, but may count as war crimes or crimes against humanity. He also said the tribunal ruled last year there was insufficient evidence to support the view that the genocide was a conspiracy planned long in advance. And he said other researchers have concluded that more Hutus than Tutsis may have been slain.

Erlinder urged people to read the documents that led to his conclusions, which he posted on the Internet though his Rwanda Documents Project.

Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo, who’s also a government spokeswoman, did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment. The press officer at the Rwandan embassy in Washington was out of town and unreachable, a man answering the phone there said Wednesday.

But Rwandan authorities have likened their laws against genocide denial to Germany’s laws against Holocaust denial and defended them as necessary for keeping the peace.

Erlinder said reconciliation is possible in Rwanda despite what he contends is a suppression of history to benefit those in power. He suggested a process along the lines of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated the atrocities of the apartheid era and offered amnesty to those who confessed and demonstrated remorse.

“If there is going to be peace in central Africa, then it has to be done the way that the South Africans figured out, to accept responsibility for wrongs on both sides,” he said.



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