MINNEAPOLIS – MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A Rwandan court is expected to rule Thursday on whether a jailed law professor from Minnesota should be freed on bail for health reasons, his family said Tuesday.
Peter Erlinder, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, has been accused of violating Rwanda's laws against minimizing genocide. Erlinder was arrested May 28 while in the country to help with the legal defense of an opposition leader.
The Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported Tuesday that Erlinder acknowledged during a Monday court hearing in Kigali, Rwanda, that he attempted to commit suicide in jail by overdosing on pills earlier this month.
He told the court he had a breakdown and lost hope, according to audio recordings obtained by the newspaper. He also said he has struggled with depression for 25 years.
But the recordings also show Erlinder rebutted prosecution claims that he has denied the 1994 genocide in which hundreds of thousands of Rwandans, the vast majority of them ethnic Tutsis, were massacred by extremist Hutus in 100 days.
Erlinder, 62, is lead defense attorney for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which is prosecuting Rwandans charged with involvement in the mass killings. Erlinder doesn't deny mass violence happened but contends it's inaccurate to blame one side.
The tribunal issued a diplomatic note to the Rwandan foreign ministry and prosecutors Tuesday, requesting Erlinder's immediate release. It said Erlinder enjoys immunity because it appears the allegations against him stem partly from his statements before the tribunal.
His brother, Scott Erlinder, of Chicago, said defense lawyers in Rwanda told the family the judge will rule on bail Thursday.
"The family's pretty hopeful that the outcome will be good for us," Scott Erlinder said.
Peter Erlinder went to Rwanda to help Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu who wants to run in Aug. 9 elections against incumbent President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi. She was arrested in April and charged with promoting a genocidal ideology.
His daughter, Sarah Erlinder, a Flagstaff, Ariz., attorney, said Tuesday that Monday's hearing seems to confirm earlier Rwandan government claims her father had attempted suicide.
"We've been saying all along that was out of character, kind of hard to believe, knowing my dad, but I guess it's possible," she said. "I hope it's not true because, knowing him, that would also mean a pretty desperate situation, I would think. It's so frustrating to not really get good information."
The U.S. embassy in Kigali is bringing Peter Erlinder meals in prison at the family's expense. His daughter said they want to make sure his food is safe and remove his stress over concerns it might be poisoned.
Peter Erlinder's wife, Masako Usui, of St. Paul, is in New York this week to meet with U.N. Security Council members. The head of the Tanzania-based Rwanda tribunal, Presiding Judge Dennis Byron, is to deliver a progress report to the Security Council on Friday.
Usui had appointments with Austrian and British diplomats Tuesday and was trying to set up others, Scott Erlinder said.
The State Department has called for Erlinder's release but has been cautious in public statements about his case.
Speaking at a Monday foreign policy round-table on Africa at the State Department, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was asked if she was concerned whether recent moves by the Rwandan government, including Erlinder's arrest, indicate the country is backtracking on democracy. She replied that the U.S. has made its concerns known to the Rwandan government.
"We really don't want to see Rwanda undermine its own remarkable progress by beginning to move away from a lot of the very positive actions that undergirded its development so effectively," Clinton said.
Clinton said she understood "the anxiety of the Rwandan leadership over what they view as genocide denial or genocide rejectionism."
"But I think there are ways of dealing with that legitimate concern other than politically acting against opposition figures or lawyers and others," she said.
Associated Press Writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report from Washington.