The “lawyer” Secretary Clinton referred to is Peter Erlinder, an American who is a defense attorney for accused genocide perpetrators at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and a public spokesman for their cause. He portrays himself as a seeker of truth and justice, but is widely viewed within Rwanda as a conspiracy theorist and genocide denier. Mr. Erlinder came to Rwanda in late May to advise Ms. Ingabire. He was arrested, charged with genocide denial and endangering Rwandan security, then released on bail on June 17, on grounds of compassion for his physical and mental health problems. Though he has since returned to the US, Rwanda still aims to try him.
To Americans who follow what passes for news about this far-away African country (there is a lot going on right now, often troubling, but with no Western journalists based here, there is a dearth of in-depth reporting), Clinton’s remarks might seem like sound advice. But her intervention was harmful to Rwanda’s efforts to protect its post-genocide democracy from renewed ethnic divisions. The stakes are too high for an ad hoc approach.
In the case of Erlinder, the US has a duty to ensure that any American arrested overseas gets fair treatment. But to characterize his prosecution as “political” and to urge he be released on compassionate grounds, as the State Department did, goes well beyond this duty. It supposes that genocide denial is a victimless crime, and not legitimate grounds for legal action. Europe doesn’t see it that way. Nor of course does Rwanda, with its 300,000 still-traumatized genocide survivors. Why should we?
As for Ingabire, it is astonishing that the US would appear to go to bat for her. Ingabire claims to want reconciliation and democracy for Rwanda. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has campaigned for her to be allowed to compete in Rwanda’s election. But, surprisingly, HRW has not told its readers (including, no doubt, folks at the State Department) a word about the ideology and background of Ingabire’s party or the nature of her campaign. This can be remedied.