KIGALI (Reuters) - A U.S. lawyer arrested in Rwanda for alleged genocide denial has retracted all statements which could have violated the country’s anti-genocide laws, Rwanda’s chief prosecutor and a legal source said on Wednesday.
Chief prosecutor Martin Ngoga accuses Peter Erlinder, who is lead defence lawyer at the U.N.’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, of genocide denial which he said threatened state security.
Ngoga declined to give details of what Erlinder is accused of saying, other than that the statements were made outside Rwanda.
However, the legal source said they concerned remarks made about President Paul Kagame, who has led Rwanda since the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people died.
The United Nations tribunal is based in neighbouring Tanzania. But Erlinder came to Rwanda to defend outspoken opposition presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, who was arrested and released on bail over genocide denial in April.
“He said during questions that ‘I am retracting my comments, my provocations and anything that you think violates your law’,” Ngoga told Reuters. The legal source who is familiar with the case confirmed the retraction.
Ngoga would not say whether the retraction was enough for him to drop his case. “It is premature to make a conclusion whether that was said with sense of remorse in it or just a statement made for the sake of it.”
Erlinder has been taken to hospital twice since his arrest on May 28, complaining of high blood pressure and heart problems, Ngoga and sources close to the trial said.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, those found guilty of genocide denial — grossly minimising or attempting to justify the genocide — are liable to 10-20 years in prison.
The legal source said the prosecution had presented an essay it says was written by Erlinder in 2008 entitled “The Great Rwanda Genocide Cover up”.
In it is written: “new evidence at the UN Rwanda Tribunal (has) exposed Kagame as the war-criminal who actually touched-off the 1994 Rwanda Genocide by assassinating the previous President.”
In April, Erlinder filed a lawsuit in the United States alleging that Kagame ordered the shooting down of a plane carrying then-leader Juvenal Habyarimana, an event that triggered the bloodshed 16 years ago.
Ngoga said Erlinder’s comments could cause a rebirth of ethnic hatred and lead to genocide.
Kagame has been widely credited with rebuilding the landlocked nation since the genocide but critics say his strong rule has come at the cost of freedom of speech.
America’s top diplomat for Africa, Jonnie Carson, said last week that Kagame’s administration was cracking down on critical opponents and media before presidential elections in August which Kagame is widely expected to win.
Rights groups say the law against hate-speech is vague and frequently used by the government to silence opposition.
A source close to the trial said Erlinder’s family are seeking a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton over the case.