Rwanda Tribunal defends 1 US lawyer, but another American now faces contempt charge
NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A second U.S. defense lawyer said Wednesday he fears he too could be arrested in Rwanda on charges of denying the country's 1994 genocide after trying to postpone a client's trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Defense lawyers at the tribunal say they feel endangered after Rwanda arrested Peter Erlinder last month and may not proceed with their cases, delaying the start of the defendants' trials.
Rwanda's top prosecutor, Martin Ngoga, said Wednesday that the case against Erlinder is not related to his work at the ICTR. But the tribunal on Tuesday told Ngoga's office it feels the case against Erlinder is related to his work and that he should have immunity from prosecution.
Erlinder, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, was arrested May 28 while in Rwanda to help with the legal defense of an opposition leader. On Wednesday, American lawyer Peter Robinson said he postponed a trial earlier this month because he feared facing the same charges when traveling to Rwanda for his clients.
"I also wanted to demonstrate that arresting a lawyer for defending his client at the ICTR was unacceptable," Robinson said.
Robinson, of Santa Rosa, California, is expected to be in court next Monday. He said he has not yet decided if he will continue with his client's case.
Robinson said he needs to travel to Rwanda to meet with witnesses, and simply avoiding travel to the country is not an option. He said if he were charged in Rwanda, an Interpol arrest warrant could be issued for him and acted on in other countries.
A statement from the ICTR on Tuesday defended Erlinder, saying he should not be charged because he was defending clients in court when making some of the statements Rwanda arrested him for.
A spokesman for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Roland Amoussouga, indicated that the contempt case against Robinson could still proceed despite the ICTR statement in support of Erlinder.
"The content of contempt proceedings is quite different from the statement ICTR made, because the contempt case is over an incident that happened in the court and the chamber has decided to start proceedings," Amoussouga said.
Erlinder has been accused of violating Rwanda's laws against minimizing genocide.
Erlinder, 62, is lead defense attorney for the ICTR, which the U.N. set up to prosecute the suspected masterminds of the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Erlinder doesn't deny mass violence happened but contends it's inaccurate to blame one side.
A Rwandan court is expected to rule Thursday on whether Erlinder should be freed on bail. The State Department has called for Erlinder's release but has been cautious in public statements about his case. International groups like the International Criminal Defense Attorneys Association have also called for his release.
On Wednesday, Erlinder's family said he had been hospitalized with high blood pressure. They cited an e-mail from his attorneys and the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda.
The case has sent a chill through the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Defense lawyers there said in a statement this month they were increasingly concerned that doing their job could result in being charged. The lawyers said it was impossible to continue with their mission as long as Erlinder and the rights of the defense are "held hostage."
Hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, the vast majority of them ethnic Tutsis, were massacred by extremist Hutus in 100 days during the 1994 genocide.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said on Monday that she understood the anxiety of Rwanda's leaders over what they view as genocide denial or genocide rejectionism, but that there are other ways of dealing with those concerns than acting against opposition figures or lawyers.