KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwandan authorities arrested U.S. lawyer Peter Erlinder Friday over allegations of denying the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people were slaughtered, police and the chief prosecutor said.
Erlinder flew into the central African country one week ago to defend aspiring presidential candidate Victoire Ingabire, who was herself arrested and released on bail in April over accusations of belonging to a terrorist group and promoting genocide ideology.
“He was arrested this morning. He said that there was no genocide in Rwanda, that no Tutsis were killed by Hutus,” said police spokesman Eric Kayiranga.
Ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were the targets of the 100-day massacre in 1994 at the hands of Hutu authorities.
Chief prosecutor Martin Ngoga told Reuters Erlinder was arrested for remarks made in publications and statements, but could not immediately cite specific comments.
Under a 2003 law, persons condemned for denying or grossly minimizing genocide, attempting to justify genocide or destroy evidence related to it are liable to a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 20 in prison.
The U.S. embassy in the capital Kigali confirmed the arrest of Erlinder, who works as the lead defense counsel for top genocide suspects at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania.
The arrest comes days after the U.S. government expressed concerns about freedom of expression in the country ahead of August presidential polls, following similar criticism by international rights groups.
Rwanda has denied allegations of muzzling independent media and using anti-genocide legislation to crack down on emerging opposition parties.
“In a period of months, the Government of Rwanda has suspended two newspapers, revoked the work permit and denied the visa of a Human Rights Watch researcher, and arrested (and subsequently released on bail) opposition leader Victoire Ingabire,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said Tuesday.
In April, Erlinder filed a lawsuit in the United States alleging that current Rwandan President Paul Kagame ordered the shooting down of a plane carrying then-leader Juvenal Habyarimana, an event that triggered the bloodshed 16 years ago.
Earlier this year a Rwandan investigation pinned the assassination on Habyarimana’s own troops.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan