By JOSH KRON and JEFFREY GETTLEMAN
KAMPALA, Uganda — Rwandan authorities on Friday arrested an American lawyer who is representing a leading Rwandan opposition figure, the latest sign of an increasingly repressive atmosphere there.
Peter Erlinder, a law professor at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota, is being charged with denying the Rwandan genocide and was being interrogated Friday night at police headquarters in the capital, Kigali, Rwandan officials said.
The Rwandan government seems to be getting increasingly sensitive in the months before national elections in August and recently lashed out at the American government, one of its biggest donors, for complaining about restrictions on the media and human rights groups.
The Rwandan government has barred a Human Rights Watch researcher from working in the country and closed down several independent newspapers. Some opposition supporters have been attacked inside government offices; others have been jailed.
Mr. Erlinder previously defended genocide suspects at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, and recently helped file a lawsuit in Oklahoma against Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, which may have provoked the government’s ire.
“He is an advocate for unpopular causes,” which is “one of the great traditions of lawyers,” said Eric S. Janus, president and dean of William Mitchell.
Mr. Erlinder arrived in Kigali on Sunday to take on the case of Victoire Ingabire, a leading opposition politician who has been trying to run for president but was recently charged with helping a rebel group and espousing genocide ideology. Human rights observers say the Rwandan government has vaguely defined the crime of genocide ideology and is using it to punish political opponents and people who challenge the government’s version of the genocide in 1994, when hundreds of thousands of minority Tutsis and a smaller number of moderate Hutus were killed.
A police spokesman, Eric Kayingare, said that Mr. Erlinder was accused of “denying the genocide” and “negationism” from statements he had made at the tribunal in Arusha, as well as “in his books, in publications.”
Mr. Erlinder’s arrest comes days after Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African affairs, told Congress that the Rwandan government was restricting human rights ahead of presidential elections. A spokesperson for Rwanda dismissed that criticism, saying that American concerns “need to be contextualized.”
Ms. Ingabire was arrested in April after she claimed that crimes committed in 1994 against Hutus by the ruling party had gone unpunished. In a telephone interview on Friday, she said she was surprised the authorities were now going after her lawyer.
“He has the same problem as me,” Ms. Ingabire said. “There was a genocide against the Tutsi, but there were also crimes against humanity, and Kagame doesn’t like to talk about that.”