US lawyer imprisoned in Rwanda

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Minnesota lawyer Peter Erlinder is sitting in a Rwandan prison today ? accused of denying Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Anchor Marco Werman speaks with Eric Janus, dean of the William Mitchell College of Law, where Peter Erlinder teaches.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. Peter Erlinder is sitting in a Rwandan prison today far from his home in Minnesota. Erlinder is a lawyer. He traveled t Rwanda last week to defend a Presidential candidate there. The candidate had been accused of denying Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Rwandan authorities proceeded to arrest the U.S. lawyer and accused him of denying the genocide too. Today police official allege that Erlinder tried to commit suicide in his cell by swallowing a cocktail of medication. But Erlinder's lawyers call the allegation suspicious. Eric Janus is Dean of the William Mitchell College of Law where Peter Erlinder teaches. First of all, the allegation that your colleague might be attempting to take his own life in his prison cell in Rwanda, how does that report strike you Eric Janus?

ERIC JANUS: It strikes me as low in credibility. From what I know about Professor Erlinder, he is a tenacious advocate and that would be very surprising to me if he attempted to take his own life.

WERMAN: Now, Rwanda is prosecuting him for denying the genocide in what he writes and what he says. What do you think? I mean, 800,000 Rwandans, that's the number that's usually cited. They lost their lives in the 1994 killing spree in the course of three months. Denying or even minimizing it would be a weighty matter, wouldn't it?

JANUS: It certainly is a weighty matter. It's obviously an important and contentious history. I'm not a defender or a detractor of Professor Erlinder's views. This is not a person who, in some sort of gratuitous way has called the Rwandan massacres a hoax or made a historical claim in a general set of forums. This is a person who has developed a set of legal positions in the context of defending a person who is accused of very serious crimes. I think that's what we and international law expect a defense lawyer to do. No one put Adolph Eichmann's lawyer in prison when he vigorously defended Eichmann in an Israeli court. It's a key part of the process of identifying who the guilty parties are for these heinous crimes and punishing them.

WERMAN: Why do you then think Peter Erlinder was arrested?

JANUS: I think he was arrested because he went to Rwanda to represent an individual in court who contests the official version of events in 1994 and who is a political threat probably to the government in Rwanda.

WERMAN: Given just how crispy relations were between the United States and Rwanda after the genocide, a lot of people in Rwanda saw President Clinton at the time as looking the other way. The question is should an American lawyer be playing such a prominent role in Rwandan political affairs?

JANUS: I don't have a judgment about that. What I know is that Professor Erlinder went to Rwanda with a legitimate purpose in mind that is responding to a request for representation by an individual who has been charged with a crime in Rwanda. It would certainly be within the rights of the government in Rwanda to deny him the right to enter the country. They didn't do that, they allowed him to enter. It would certainly be within their rights to deny him on legitimate grounds, the right to appear in their courts. But to put him in prison for attempting to do what lawyers do and what must be done, if a criminal process is to be legitimate, strikes me as well on the other side of permissible.

WERMAN: Eric Janus, the Dean of the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul Minnesota. His colleague Peter Erlinder is in prison in Rwanda. Thank you very much for joining us Eric.

JANUS: Thank you very much, I appreciate it.