More than 30 defense lawyers from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) [official website] released a joint statement [text] Tuesday calling for the release of detained US lawyer and JURIST Forum [website] contributor Peter Erlinder [professional profile; JURIST news archive], who is being held in Rwanda on charges of genocide denial. The statement calls on international authorities to obtain Erlinder's release and to guarantee immunity for "every person engaged in seeking truth before any international or domestic jurisdiction." The lawyers indicated they will stop participating in proceedings at the ICTR until minimal steps are taken to remedy the situation. They also noted that Erlinder's arrest indicates a growing threat to the country's legal system stating, "anyone who is involved in the defence of an accused person - be they counsel, investigator, assistant or Defense witness - runs the same risks and is exposed to the same threats of being criminally categorized as a "negationist" as defined in Rwandan legislation." The defense lawyers contend that Erlinder's arrest and subsequent denial of bail [judgment, DOC; JURIST report] "seriously compromised" the ICTR's mission by undermining the independence of lawyers and preventing them from performing their duties without fear of suffering reprisals. The ICTR launched contempt proceedings [text] on Tuesday against one of the defense lawyers who signed the statement after he protested Erlinder's arrest by refusing to question witnesses in an unrelated case.
Rwandan police arrested Erlinder [JURIST report] last month on charges that he denied the 1994 Rwandan genocide [HRW backgrounder; JURIST news archive]. Erlinder was in Rwanda to prepare his defense of opposition presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza [campaign website], who was arrested in April [JURIST report] on similar charges. Erlinder pleaded not guilty [JURIST report], but was deemed a flight risk [AFP report] and denied bail, despite his claim that he needed to return to the US for medical treatment following what Rwandan officials say was a suicide attempt [JURIST report]. International groups including the National Lawyers Guild, the International Criminal Defence Attorneys Association, and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers [advocacy websites] have called for Erlinder's release [press release], saying that the charges against him are politically motivated [AP report].