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Rwanda frees U.S. lawyer due to health, charges remain

KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwanda on Thursday freed an American lawyer it has charged with genocide denial and threatening state security, allowing him to leave custody on health grounds while investigations continue.

U.S. attorney Peter Erlinder, arrested in Rwanda over allegations of genocide denial, is re-handcuffed at the end of his bail hearing at Gasabo court on the outskirts of Kigali June 4, 2010. REUTERS/Hez Holland

Rwanda’s Foreign Ministry said the release of Peter Erlinder, a lawyer at the Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), who was arrested in May, would have no impact on the severity of charges levelled against him.

The case has strained relations between Rwanda and the court, set up to try those responsible for the most serious crimes committed during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

Erlinder earlier this year filed a lawsuit accusing Rwandan President Paul Kagame of ordering the killings that sparked the genocide. He is the first foreigner to be tried under Rwanda’s 2003 anti-genocide legislation.

“It is an order that ... Peter Erlinder be hereby unconditionally released from detention on health grounds,” High Court judge Johnson Busingye said in Kigali. “Investigations into his case will proceed.”

The ICTR had earlier said Erlinder should not have been held as he had immunity and Rwandan prosecutors used a statement made in a case at the international court as evidence in the case against him in Rwanda.

The U.S. State Department had called on Rwanda to release Erlinder on health grounds.

Gershom Otachi, Erlinder’s lawyer, said his client was in hospital on Thursday but understood that he would be allowed to leave the country as he had been given an unconditional release.


Usually a defence counsel at the international court, Erlinder went to Rwanda to defend outspoken presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, who was arrested on genocide denial charges in April and later released on bail.

“Bail on health grounds cannot be mistaken as vindication for Mr. Erlinder -- it just proves that the justice system he so freely criticises was willing to show him compassion with respect to his physical and mental well-being,” the Rwandan prosecutor said in a statement released by the Foreign Ministry.

“This will not deter the prosecution as we finalise the case against Mr. Erlinder. He will soon be called to defend his record of genocide denial that insults the people of Rwanda and inflames those who seek to harm us,” it added.

The U.S. lawyer has been in hospital four times since his arrest complaining of heart problems and panic attacks. He has denied the charges of questioning the genocide against Tutsis, saying his words were misinterpreted by the government.

Rights groups say the anti-genocide law is vague and used for political and personal reasons. Rwanda denies that, saying the laws are necessary to prevent a repeat of the genocide in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered.

Writing by David Lewis; editing by Janet Lawrence