The other Rwanda-related thing that happened late last week was the release of American lawyer Peter Erlinder. Erlinder, you may recall, is the ICTR lawyer who went to Kigali to defend Victoire Ingabire, the Hutu opposition politician who would very much like to run for president in Rwanda's August 9 elections, but who is being blocked from doing so by the government, which accuses her of violating the country's vaguely-worded genocide law. Still with me? Good.
Rwanda released Erlinder on bail on Thursday and allowed him to leave the country, which effectively ensures he'll never stand trial there. Over the weekend, Erlinder made it to Nairobi, held a press conference, and immediately expressed dissatisfaction with what he apparently believes should be constituted under the term "American Citizen Services:"
Peter Erlinder, 62, said he had to sleep on a concrete floor without a blanket and without assistance from the embassy after his May 28 arrest in Kigali, Rwanda's capital. The Minnesota law professor thanked U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for saying Rwanda shouldn't arrest lawyers but said embassy officials in Kigali and Nairobi have not helped much.A couple of points are in order here. One has to do with what happens to an American citizen who travels to a specific country with the knowledge that he or she will likely be arrested upon doing so. In Erlinder's case, he clearly knew the risk of going - he took the precaution of notifying the State Department, his Senators, and his Congressman that he would be traveling to Kigali in advance of his departure.
U.S. Embassy officials in Nairobi did not immediately respond to inquiries from The Associated Press.
"My government insisted that I take my medications from my captors rather than bringing me medications directly," Erlinder told a news conference in Nairobi, his first public comments since his arrest. "It was impossible for them to arrange a doctor whom I would pay so that I wouldn't have to get my food and my medication from my captors."
Erlinder did not outright say that he feared taking food from Rwandan authorities, but that was the implication. He added that it wasn't clear to him that "my own embassy was working in my interests." He did not elaborate.
This suggests that Erlinder at least in part went to Kigali in order to make a point. Fine. What I'm not clear on is why he believed that the U.S. Embassy staff would be willing to provide him with services when he traveled to the country in full knowledge of the risk he was taking. Quite frankly, it's not a foreign service officer's job to get an American citizen out of trouble when it's very clear that the citizen got into that situation willfully and in full knowledge of the potential consequences of doing so.
Even if it were - and even though these requests seem fairly reasonable - American diplomats are not miracle-workers. While it is possible to pressure a foreign government in cases like this (which, given Erlinder's release, almost certainly did happen), they have absolutely no authority to force the Rwandan authorities to do anything. Erlinder was being ridiculously paranoid in assuming that the Rwandan government would try to off him by denying him medications or poisoning his food. They don't like Erlinder, but the RPF are public relations geniuses. The last thing they wanted or needed was a dead American ICTR lawyer on their hands.
From what I hear from Kigali, the U.S. Embassy staff were none too amused by Erlinder's decision to show up in Rwanda despite his knowledge that he was likely to be arrested. Even so, Erlinder was released within three weeks of his arrest, which suggests that a great deal of diplomatic activity took place in order to secure his release in a pretty quick time frame. While I do think Erlinder has the right to say what he likes and believe what he believes about Rwanda and its history without being arrested, he knowingly invited trouble by taking this trip. He's fortunate to be a free man today.