US defense lawyer pleads not guilty to Rwanda genocide denial

[JURIST] US lawyer and JURIST Forum [website] contributor Peter Erlinder [professional profile; JURIST news archive] pleaded not guilty Friday to charges of Rwanda genocide denial. Rwandan prosecutors claim that as a result of his past American publications on the Rwandan genocide in tandem with his work as defense counsel at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) [official website], Erlinder has become an organizer of genocide deniers. During a five-hour hearing in Kigali, Erlinder denied the accusations, saying that this may be a case of misinterpretation or misunderstanding. Erlinder appeared weak in court [AP report] and requested bail so he could return home for medical treatment. Prosecutors argued against his release while the investigation was ongoing, unless a medical examination showed that he required treatment in the US. The US government has pressed Rwanda to release Erlinder on "compassionate" grounds [press briefing] due to deteriorating health and concern for his mental welfare. Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo [official profile] has so far rejected US requests to release Erlinder [Africa Review report], stating that any health or welfare issues must be proven by Rwandan medical experts. The judge presiding over Erlinder's case said he would decide Monday whether to grant bail.

Erlinder was hospitalized earlier this week after Rwandan authorities claimed he attempted to commit suicide [JURIST report] while being held in prison. Erlinder was reportedly found semiconscious [New Times report] in his cell Wednesday morning as police attempted to summon him for further questioning. According to Dr. Daniel Nyamaswa, Director of the National Police Hospital at Kacyiru [official website] where Erlinder was initially hospitalized, Erlinder took up to 50 pills of prescription medications intended to treat depression and high blood pressure. Erlinder later explained in a message to his family that he took the overdose in order to be transferred to a hospital to escape the poor conditions of his holding cell [AP report], which he shares with several others. Police officials claimed Erlinder had confirmed that the overdose was a suicide attempt made because the sentence he could face if convicted of genocide denial could be as long as 25 years, effectively "life" for the 62-year-old lawyer. Officials have said they will wait until Erlinder has recovered [allAfrica report] before deciding if they will charge him with attempted suicide, a criminal offense in Rwanda. Rwandan police arrested Erlinder [JURIST report] last week while he was in Rwanda to prepare his defense of opposition presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza [campaign website], who was arrested [JURIST report] last month on similar charges. 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 are politically motivated [AP report].

 

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