KIGALI - Embattled American lawyer Peter Erlinder, yesterday appeared in court for the preliminary hearing and pleaded not guilty to all charges levelled against him. They included denying and minimising the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Erlinder draped in a long green overcoat and flanked by a team of 9 legal representatives, told the court that he was not aware that his “obscure” publications back in America could be tantamount to Genocide denial.
Through an interpreter, he told court that even by travelling to Rwanda he was not aware that his past publications and speeches would get him into trouble with the Rwandan government, and that he would cooperate with the court to interpret his writings, but would do so out of jail.
He pleaded with Judge Maurice Mbishibishi to conditionally release him and allow him to travel back to the United States for appropriate treatment as his health is deteriorating, but the prosecution insisted he should be provisionally detained as investigations into his case continue.
“As prosecution, we have strong reasons to ask for his provisional detention because we see it as the only means to protect the accused as investigations into his case continue,” said Prosecutor Richard Muhumuza.
“This way, he can always be available when prosecution needs him, and it is also to ensure that the accused doesn’t escape,” he said.
But Erlinder and his defence team argued that the accused is ready to cooperate and play by the rules the court will set, as long as he is allowed to access treatment.
As the focus shifted to the health of Erlinder, Muhumuza informed the court that the decision should be determined by medical doctors at the request of the court.
Erlinder who said he was undergoing an emotional and psychological breakdown, almost decided not to leave the courtroom when the judge pronounced that bail would be decide on Monday.
The hearing which was supposed to kick off at 2pm delayed for three hours as Erlinder was said not to be in a normal mental state. He told court that he has not been mistreated during his time in jail and doctors were there for him all the time but, he could not stay in jail anymore.
He said that there could have been ‘misunderstanding or misinterpretation’ of his publications but there was no intention of minimising the genocide or pitting Rwandans against each other.
Erlinder who had come in the country to represent Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza in her case which also involves genocide denial, said that he has trust in the country’s institutions but his worry was his ill health. He said he was too old and too weak to stay in jail.
The Prosecutor argued that Erlinder’s case is a serious one and there is strong evidence to back up the accusations ranging from his publications and utterances where he continuously and explicitly minimises and denies the Genocide.
The accused also refers to President Paul Kagame as a genocidaire and who downed the plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana, thereby triggering the Genocide. He added that Erlinder intentionally preaches that the Genocide was not planned.
On top of his four lawyers, an American, two Kenyans and a Rwandan, The Rwandan Bar Association has appointed five of its members to advise Erlinder.
The hearing continues on Monday.