Africa Great Lakes Democracy Watch

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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Peter Erlinder arrest a blow to international law

Peter Erlinder speaks after being given bail following his detention accused of minimizing Rwanda's 1994 genocide. Photograph: Sayyid Azim/AP

Peter Erlinder, the lead defence counsel at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda arrested and detained by the Rwandan authorities, has now been released on bail. But the damage to the integrity of international criminal courts remains a very real problem.

Erlinder was arrested in Rwanda, accused of genocide denial, genocide ideology and of being a threat to national security. He had gone to Kigali to help in the defence of Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu expatriate who had recently returned to Rwanda to stand as an opposition candidate in the forthcoming presidential elections. Ingabire had herself been arrested and charged with offences of association with a terrorist group, propagating genocide ideology, negation of genocide and ethnic divisionism, all domestic crimes in Rwanda.

After an enormous amount of international pressure and the personal intervention of Hillary Clinton, Erlinder was eventually released on "humanitarian" grounds on appeal on 18th June. But the case against him continues.

Despite numerous requests, including from the Registrar of the ICTR asking for the proceedings to be dropped, the prosecution refused, stating that his release "… 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 is worth noting that all defendants in that ICTR trial have been acquitted of charges of conspiracy to commit genocide prior to 1994 when the then Rwandan president Habyarimana, a Hutu, and Burundi's president Ntaryamira were killed when their plane was shot down. Despite this judicial finding, and indeed the signature of Rwanda to the UN convention asserting immunity of counsel, the prosecutor emphasised that proceedings would be vigorously pursued. No charges have yet been brought.

The deluge of international support arose not only for Erlinder's personal fate, but also for the wider issue of genuine recognition of immunity of counsel. As an open letter by three legal associations including the International Criminal Bar to the secretary-general of the UN articulated it: "The arrest, by the Rwandan government, of an internationally respected criminal defense lawyer, while acting in that role, subverts orderly reconciliation and undermines the mission of the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda, which has been making fundamental contributions to international peace and justice."

Inevitably, if counsel is at risk of prosecution for proper representation of a client in court, the interests of justice generally and international justice itself are severely, if not fatally, undermined.

In principle, lawyers who undertake the difficult job of representing those accused of the most serious crimes are protected from being identified with the submissions they put forward on behalf of their clients by UN and other conventions; but, in practice, this case has shown that where a country has domestic laws which criminalise deviation from the official line, lawyers are at considerable and unacceptable personal risk.

It is of further concern that Erlinder articulated the statements which form the foundation of the allegations against him outside Rwanda – and yet the Rwandan prosecutor asserts, and the court has accepted, jurisdiction.

Those now acting before the ICTR are understandably concerned about their own positions. Peter Robinson, another defence advocate, was until Friday threatened with contempt of court proceedings before the ICTR, having refused to examine a witness on behalf of his client following Erlinder's arrest. (Although they appeared from transcripts to have been instigated by Judge Byron at the ICTR, last week the judge indicated that no such proceedings had in fact been commenced).

Events had intervened. Firstly, Erlinder, although still subject to proceedings despite the calls from the ICTR itself to terminate proceedings immediately on the basis of his immunity, had been granted bail and returned to the US. Secondly, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (an NGO with consultative status with Ecosoc and Unicef) had, with other organisations, protested at the issue of contempt proceedings in respect of lawyers appearing before the ICTR. And thirdly, it was apparent that the ongoing trials at the ICTR were going to be significantly disrupted by ongoing threats of contempt proceedings against counsel appearing before them.

Where an accused's defence requires that his counsel visits a country to seek further witnesses but he fears being arrested himself as a result of submissions made during proceedings (even if based on evidence and accepted by the tribunal), the balance and fairness of an international court is disrupted.

It is not merely the security and immunity of defence counsel that are at stake: the strength of an international court comes from equality of arms between the parties and a fair hearing by an independent judge. The loss of any one of these is detrimental to the integrity and credibility of all international tribunals and consequently to international justice.

Amanda Pinto QC is the UK's representative on the Council of the International Criminal Bar


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