Erlinder’s Arrest: A Blessing or Curse

Kigali will argue they have finally got their man but the arrest of Prof Peter Erlinder on Friday in Kigali has every potential to go down as a defining moment in the history of this tiny country, who many now know, enjoys tussling it out with the mightiest.

The American Professor of Law at William Mitchel College of Law in St Paul, Minnesota, a successful criminal lawyer and lead counsel at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is now, as Kigali will want the world to know, in their hands – ready to face the long arm of the law for denying genocide – at least for now. Don’t be surprised if when the charge sheet is presented, it contains associating with terrorists and promoting divisionism. The three, according to prosecutors in Kigali, MUST go together; otherwise the case wouldn’t be TRULLY RWANDAN.

Having arrived in Rwanda on Sunday, May 23, to defend incarcerated opposition politician Victoire Umuhoza Ingabire – another member of the public whose charge sheet includes the three named charges, Erlinder who a Rwandan prosecution source described as ‘a big fish given his association with known genocidaires’ now has to get himself a lawyer and consider his defence for Ingabire impossible.

Already, the American Embassy has made it clear it won’t be commenting further on the case apart from confirming that Prof Erlinder has been arrested.

But what exactly are the politics here?

Before i go any further, it is perhaps imperative that we get to understand who Prof Erlinder is and how he fits into this amazing Rwandan cobweb. Erlinder is not only famous for being a successful and intelligent criminal lawyer, he was lead counsel in the famous Military I trial in Arusha where it was argued and established that there was “no planning or conspiracy on the part of the former government to commit the genocide”.

Earlier this month, Prof Erlinder was again among a group of attorneys who sought to serve President Paul Kagame for wrongful death in a $350 million dollar suit filed in Oklahoma. As a long time critic of the regime in Kigali, Prof Erlinder was always in Kagame’s black book and it was not a surprise when his name appeared alongside those of people considered evil and worth eliminating by the Rwandan regime as leaked on the internet by Keith Harmon Snow.

Even with the US declaring itself yesterday and choosing to lay-bear the fears inside Rwanda in a scathing report published on the internet Thursday May 27, Kigali today decided enough was enough and moved in on the Professor.

Why is the question?

From the day Victoire Ingabire was arrested, Erlinder made it clear he was prepared to be part of her defence team. His interest was publicised and Rwanda knew then, that Erlinder was on his way. Sources within Rwanda’s prosecution have told me that fearing Erlinder’s interest in the case and his expression of willingness to defend Ingabire, the government started circulating stories in the local and regional press aimed at scaring away the America. Newspaper reports hinted at the possibility of an immediate arrest on arrival for previously denying the genocide ever took place.

But the more Erlinder was threatened, the more he made certain his desire to travel and represent Ingabire. And since much of the evidence in the case against Ingabire is circumstantial and some of it from coerced testimonies, Rwanda feared a smart counsel of Erlinder’s stature would quash it, thereby making a successful prosecution impossible. Such, would of course exonerate her from all the charges, allowing her to register her party FDU-Inkingi in time for the presidential elections in August.

Bring in Plan B

As the government worked around the clock for a way to prevent an embarrassment, Prof Erlinder arrived in Kigali. He was never arrested because technically the leaked list threat was never official – and thus not enough to effect an arrest – especially since the government had been denying knowledge of it. So, Erlinder was left to enter the country and instead another tactic devised. Working with the Bar Association of Rwanda, the government decided this time to delay in the hope of refusing Erlinder permission to practice.

Again, a newspaper campaign was mounted against his visit with emphasis on the fact that he had no legal right to practice in the country despite his interest in defending Ingabire. However, as a law professor and a counsel who had worked at the ICTR in neighbouring Tanzania, this move was destined to fall through. It is then that “on orders from above,” police was instructed to arrest him.

Curse or Blessing

In arresting Prof Erlinder, the Rwandan government may have overlooked one simple fact – the obvious case of the arrest having two sides. Erlinder’s arrest can only be either a blessing or curse for Rwanda.

A source told me today that part of the reason they arrested him was because they hoped the arrest of such a high profile figure would send a signal to all the “genocide deniers” and regime critics that no one will be tolerated and if it means fighting it out in court, the government is prepared “to arrest and shame”.

As stupid as this argument is, it disregards the fact that Prof Erlinder while a “big fish” is no ordinary tilapia or tuna! If the fish paradigm is to be followed, Prof Erlinder might indeed be a whale that will rock the boat and turn the tables up for what has never been heard or seen.

Kigali should know this, especially because the establishment knows and understand the truth. Incarcerating Erlinder will of course arouse more publicity to Kigali to add to the one already aimed at Rwanda over Ingabire’s arrest or the recent bombs and chaos in the run up to the August elections.

Some one will have obviously overlooked this and advised President Paul Kagame to sanction the arrest. Usually, this is what happens in Rwanda when anger overrides sane reasoning.  We have seen this with the head of state kicking off and throwing tantrums in the middles of state addresses or speeches to ambassadors accredited to the country or in a recent example, going against the tenets of justice by attempting contempt of court as in what happened in his last interview to Daily Monitor a week ago.

With a president so gaffe prone that he forgets where he has to put a comma and goes until the last full stop, a case involving Erlinder or one in which he has to take the stand is the last thing Kigali needs.

Sometimes, you get your man or your fish but when the fishing stick it too weak to pull the fish up from the sea, it might be better to just ignore, me thinks

… over to you my little monsters!


Author: ellyakanga

I am Eleneus Akanga. Welcome to my blog about my experience as a Rwandan journalist and all that comes with the trade in East Africa. It's been a great journey so far but very challenging at times. Join me, let's get cracking!

9 thoughts on “Erlinder’s Arrest: A Blessing or Curse”

  1. Just for your information, you should correct Erlinder’s law school ….

    It is
    William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA

  2. Thanks for the good and analytical article about Rwanda. you fully understand the political atmosphere of Rwanda. I think one old man who happened to be my grandfather once told.”INKUBITI YAMABYI YA CYANE YARAYITARUKIRIJE” literally translated; by hitting own excrete, one risks having it splatter all over their face. If I’m wrong please correct me English was not my primary idiom.However,as a Rwandan who wants to see our three folded citizenship live in peace and harmony,I must say that the way to freedom and true democracy is on its uphill and sooner or later it might reach its climax.

  3. I concur with the analysis in this piece. Kagame probably feels that He now has a chance to silence another critic of His Government.

    The Testimony of Undersecretary Carson does not paint a endearing Image of Rwanda as it prepares for the August Elections. Also why else would He take the step of closing the Newspapers as well?

  4. Elly,

    Today, the US government asked for Erlinder’s release “on grounds of compassion.” So, for now it seems that General Kagame has won. He can free Erlinder on humanitarian grounds. And the whole world will have seen that Rwanda “can stand its ground against the mightiest nation one earth.”

    The long-term effects of this whole episode remain to be seen, but in the short run, it seems like Kagame has won.

  5. This is an excellent article and clarifies the picture for many of us. The US press has not been so diligent in its analysis. Thank You!!

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