US lawmakers call for release of lawyer in Rwandan custody

[JURIST] US Representatives Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Keith Ellison (D-MN) [official websites] on Wednesday introduced a resolution [H Res 1426 text] calling on the Rwandan government to release detained US lawyer and JURIST Forum [website] contributor Peter Erlinder [professional profile; JURIST news archive]. In a press release [text], McCollum explained the purpose of the resolution as designed to "prevent ... an impasse in relations" between the US and Rwanda. The resolution emphasizes the amount of aid that has been given to the Rwandan government by the US, which is to be increased by 43 percent in the 2011 budget [materials] and has amounted to over a billion dollars since 2000. In calling for Erlinder's release, the resolution also cites Rwanda's Constitution [text], stating:

[We urge] the Government of the Republic of Rwanda and President Paul Kagame to immediately release human rights lawyer Professor Peter Erlinder from jail and allow him to return to the United States. [T]he Constitution of Rwanda, adopted on May 26, 2003, states that Rwanda is 'Resolved to build a State governed by the rule of law, based on respect for fundamental human rights, pluralistic democracy, equitable power sharing, tolerance and resolution of issues through dialogue'; [However,] there is an increasing pattern of restrictions of free expression in Rwanda ahead of the August presidential elections, including the denial of a work visa to a senior Human Rights Watch researcher and the crackdown of opposition members and journalists[.]
The resolution has been referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives [official websites] for consideration.

The resolution by McCollum and Ellison comes a day after a joint statement [JURIST report] calling for Erlinder's release was issued by more than 30 defense lawyers from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) [official website]. The statement called 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. The defense lawyers contend that Erlinder's arrest and subsequent denial of bail [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. 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].

 

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