An American in Kigali: Peter Erlinder’s Arrest in Rwanda

An American in Kigali: Peter Erlinder's Arrest in Rwanda [1]


Edward S. Herman and David Peterson [2]

The May 28 arrest of U.S. attorney and Chicago native Peter Erlinder by the Paul Kagame dictatorship in Rwanda reveals much about this regime that is routinely sanitized in establishment U.S. and Western media coverage and intellectual life.  But if we use Erlinder's arrest to call attention to some less-well-known facts, a much grimmer scenario about Kagame than one that portrays him as the "man of the hour in modern Africa," who "offers such encouraging hope for the continent's future" (Stephen Kinzer),[3] comes to light. 

For one thing, Kagame does not like free elections, and he has avoided or emasculated them assiduously.  Erlinder arrived in the capital city of Kigali on May 23 to take up the legal representation of Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu expatriate who had spent the past 16 years in The Netherlands.  Upon her return to Rwanda in January, Ingabire was regarded as the leading opposition figure, even though her United Democratic Forces has yet to be allowed to register as an official party.  The Kagame regime arrested her on April 21, and charged her with "association with a terrorist group; propagating genocide ideology; negationism and ethnic divisionism."[4]  As 2010 is an election year in Rwanda (now scheduled for August 9), her arrest negates any meaningful challenge to Kagame's rule.

Rwanda's last election year was 2003.  Opposition parties, candidates, and media wound-up harassed, shut-down, arrested, exiled—even disappeared.  Kagame's main rivals at the time, the Hutu former President Pasteur Bizimungu (1994-2000) and the Hutu former Prime Minister Faustin Twagiramungu (1994-1995), were both branded "divisionists," a kind of Kagame-speak that means they provided an alternative to the one-party Kagame rule.  Bizimungu was arrested and jailed and eliminated from the political process altogether; Twagiramungu's name remained on the ballot, but his party, the Democratic Republican Movement, was abolished, many of his aides were arrested, Rwanda's state-controlled media smeared him relentlessly, and he was virtually prevented from campaigning.[5]   


Kagame won the 2003 election with a laughable 95% of the vote.  The country's National Electoral Commission declared the process "free and fair," and its Supreme Court ruled that only two ballots out of the entire total cast had been miscounted.  A spokesperson for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan praised the "high voter turnout," and added that he "considers this election an important step towards the establishment of a pluralistic multi-party democracy in Rwanda." The Bush White House congratulated "President Paul Kagame on his victory," and said that the "United States will work cooperatively with the government of Rwanda."[6]

Yet, in a country whose population then, as now, was majority Hutu by roughly a 6-to-1 margin over the Tutsi, it was only Kagame's intimidation and repression of Rwanda's civil society, and his election-rigging, that could have produced a landslide like this.  Thus when in late April, Erlinder called the arrest of Ingabire a "carbon-copy of Kagame's tactics in 2003, when all serious political challengers were jailed or driven from the country," and likened the charges against her (now extended to himself as well) to "trumped-up political thought-crimes…arising from the 'crime' of publicly objecting to the Kagame military dictatorship and Kagame's version of Rwandan civil war history,"[7] this was what he meant.

Erlinder is right.   

The Arusha Accords of August 1993[8] had stipulated that national elections be held in Rwanda by no later than 1995, but this was precluded by the military takeover of Rwanda by Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) from April through July 1994, which allowed the minority Tutsi faction (less than 15 percent of the population) to seize power by force. 

The accusation of "genocide denial" is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of the Kagame regime, with rival politicians or any other Kagame target who are so accused simply pushed out of the way.  According to news accounts immediately following Erlinder's arrest, "A police spokesman, Eric Kayingare, said that Mr. Erlinder was accused of 'denying the genocide' and 'negationism' from statements he had made at the tribunal in Arusha, as well as 'in his books, in publications'."[9] Martin Ngoga, the Prosecutor General of the Kagame regime, told Agence France Presse that Erlinder "denies the genocide in his writings and his speeches.  Worse than that, he has become an organizer of genocide deniers.  If negating [the Tutsi genocide] is not punished in [the United States,] it is punished in Rwanda.  And when he came here he knew that."[10]

On June 4, formal charges were filed against Erlinder under a number of Rwandan laws, including the Law Relating to the Punishment of the Crime of Genocide Ideology.[11]  The actual charges included "Denying and downplaying genocide through his publications and conferences," and "Spreading rumors that are capable of threatening the security of the Rwandan people."[12] 


Three days later, on June 7, Rwanda's High Court Judge Maurice Mbishibishi ruled that the prosecution's case against Erlinder was sufficiently serious to reject Erlinder's request for bail.  The judge ordered Erlinder detained for another 30 days.[13]


Rwanda's Genocide Law criminalizes what it calls "creating confusion aiming at negating the genocide which occurred…" (Article 3(2)).  Indeed, Rwanda's 2003 Constitution[14] even states that "Revisionism, negationism and trivialization of genocide are punishable by the law" (Article 13), and commits the Rwandan government to "fighting the ideology of genocide and all its manifestations" (Article 9).  

Among the evidence cited against Erlinder in court by Prosecutor Richard Muhumuza is Erlinder's contention that the "crime that triggered" the massive killings in Rwanda in 1994 was the shooting-down of the Falcon-50 jet carrying then-Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, then-Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira, and ten others on its approach to the Kanombe International Airport in Kigali on the evening of April 6 of that year—and that this crime was ordered by Paul Kagame.  To this, the Prosecutor adds the fact that Erlinder cites the identical findings in 2006 of the French anti-terrorist Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, and the findings of the Spanish Judge Fernando Merelles Abreu in 2008, both of whom requested that their government issue arrest warrants for the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) members responsible for these events.[15]  (As a Head of State, Paul Kagame enjoys immunity from arrest and prosecution.)


In other words, the Kagame regime's case against Erlinder, at least as it was argued in court on June 4 and accepted by Judge Mbishibishi on June 7, amounts to the charge that Erlinder has defended his client, the Hutu former Rwandan Army Major Aloys Ntabakuze before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) with a great deal of success, and that in so doing, Erlinder has helped to reveal the true face of the Kagame regime and the monumental violence that it brought not only to Rwanda, but to the whole of Central Africa over the past 20 years.  As a May 31 statement by Victoire Ingabire described her own predicament as well as Erlinder's: "A fair trial is being violated because international lawyers would fear that their [defense] motions will lead to indictments being issued against them for ideology of genocide….[T]he defense or testimony to show the truth about the killings in Rwanda before, during and after the genocide would be taken as a proof of negation of the genocide.  Then, the lawyers, experts' witnesses and factual witnesses would fear the intimidation and threats to be arrested because of their [effort

Leave a comment