A growing number of lawyers contend that Peter Erlinder, an American who represents a senior Rwandan Army officer accused of directing death squads, was arrested for his statements at the tribunal even though he is supposed to be protected by diplomatic immunity while working for it.
Mr. Erlinder, 62, is charged with denying Rwanda’s genocide and threatening national security through his writings and speeches. Rwanda’s government argues that Mr. Erlinder’s work can “instigate riots” and “civil disobediences,” but it seems that many of the statements that the Rwandan government finds objectionable are actually part of Mr. Erlinder’s work as a lawyer in the United States and in Arusha, Tanzania, where the United Nations-backed tribunal for Rwanda is based.
So far, 11 lawyers with imminent court appearances have formally requested that the courts postpone their cases. At least 40 in total — a majority of the defense lawyers working for the tribunal — have signed a general petition saying they plan not to work unless their security can be guaranteed.
Officials from the tribunal say that they doubt that the lawyers, who are paid by the United Nations, will pull out, but that the tribunal’s proceedings will be prolonged if that happens. Lawyers would be held in contempt — one already has been — and could face years in jail for withdrawing without court approval.
Despite assurances from Rwanda that Mr. Erlinder was not arrested for his work at the tribunal, officials at the tribunal say they also believe there is a connection. They have asked Rwanda for clarification and may bring the case in front of the United Nations Security Council.
“I.C.T.R. will not allow anyone to be prosecuted for the work that it has done for it,” said the tribunal’s spokesman, Roland Amoussouga.
Rwanda says the protesting lawyers are creating “deliberate confusion,” and that while it is understandable to care for a colleague, their claims are “outrageous” and “false.”
“Defense lawyers at I.C.T.R. have a job to do, and the government of Rwanda understands that,” said a government spokeswoman, Louise Mushikiwabo. But she said the criminal case against Mr. Erlinder is about “his role as a denier, a propagator and a mobilizer of people who diminish, distort, deny the extermination of a million Tutsi of this country.”
This is not the first time there have been tensions between Rwanda and the United Nations tribunal. The Rwandan government was lukewarm about the court being established in the first place, citing sovereignty and the international community’s inaction during the genocide. Since then, the Rwandans have been upset about the court’s sluggishness — only 50 trials have been completed in more than 15 years, with 42 convictions. Last year, Rwanda threatened to stop sending witnesses to Arusha after the acquittal of two leading suspects.
Differences have also grown over how wide a net the court should cast. Rwanda stopped sending witnesses to the tribunal in 2002 after the tribunal considered prosecuting possible crimes against humanity committed by Rwanda’s governing party, and the courts virtually ground to a halt. The tribunal relented later in the year, and a new prosecutor was appointed in 2003.
As Rwanda gears up for a presidential election in August, political tensions are rising. Mr. Erlinder was arrested after going to Rwanda to represent an opposition candidate, who was charged with espousing “genocide ideology” when she spoke out about atrocities that she said might have been committed by the governing party and had been overlooked.
According to Rwanda’s prosecution, Mr. Erlinder is guilty of denying the genocide because he has implied that the genocide was not planned. The prosecution cited a lawsuit he filed in Oklahoma on behalf of the widows of the two former presidents, and it also cited a 2008 trial at the tribunal in which they say Mr. Erlinder “downplayed genocide.”
He is currently awaiting trial at the central prison in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. His daughter says that he has not been able to speak to his family and that his health has taken a turn for the worse. She says her father was admitted to a Kigali hospital on Wednesday for the third time since his arrest.
Defense lawyers in Arusha worry that Rwanda’s laws, which critics say are intentionally vague, could be used against them, too.
“I don’t want to resign; I want the I.C.T.R. to guarantee our rights,” said Frédéric Weyl, a French defense lawyer who filed a second appeal for postponement this week. Mr. Weyl said that because of remarks he made during a legal conference in Paris in 2002 about the rights of the accused to question charges, the Rwandan government considered him a “negationist.”
“If I had a mission to Kigali, perhaps I can be in the same situation as Erlinder,” he said.