State Department calls for Rwanda to release jailed professor on 'compassionate grounds'

WASHINGTON (AP) — The State Department on Thursday called on the Rwandan government to release a jailed U.S. law professor. Peter Erlinder has been in custody since Friday on charges he denied the central African country's 1994 genocide.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters on Thursday that U.S. officials were closely monitoring Erlinder's situation and have been in touch with officials in Rwanda.

"We want to be sure that he is accorded all of his rights," Crowley said. "We are pressing the Rwandan government to resolve this case quickly and would like to see him released on compassionate grounds."

Peter Erlinder's family traveled to Washington on Thursday to press for his release. They spoke with reporters on Thursday morning and met with State Department officials later in the day.

Peter Erlinder's daughter, Sarah, said she was elated the State Department had called for her father's release. She and other family members said earlier Thursday they thought a public call for his release would spur action from Rwanda, which is closely allied with the U.S. government and receives millions of dollars in aid.

"That's the best news I've heard in a long time," she said. "It's been such a roller coaster, good news and bad news coming at the same time."

Erlinder is a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul with a reputation for taking on difficult, often unpopular defendants and causes. A past president of the progressive National Lawyers Guild, he leads a group of defense lawyers at the U.N.'s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The tribunal is trying the alleged leaders of the 1994 genocide.

The Rwandan government has accused him of violating the country's laws which forbid minimizing the 1994 genocide in which more than 500,000 Rwandans, the vast majority of them ethnic Tutsis, were massacred by Hutus in 100 days. Erlinder has not contended that massive violence did not occur, but has said it's inaccurate to blame just one side.

Erlinder was in Kigali to help with the legal defense of Victoire Ingabire, an opposition leader running against President Paul Kagame in Aug. 9 elections. Ingabire is accused of promoting genocidal ideology.


Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.