Arusha, October 13, 2010 -  Defence lawyers at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) enjoy immunity from prosecution only in the context of their ICTR work, the Appeals Chamber of the Tribunal has ruled. The landmark ruling came last week in a decision related to American lawyer Peter Erlinder, previously arrested in Rwanda and still wanted by Kigali for "negation of genocide".

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Erlinder is a lawyer in the so-called "Military I" case before the ICTR, defending genocide convict Major Aloys Ntabakuze who is now on appeal. The American lawyer was arrested in Kigali on May 28 this year, after he went to work there for the defence of jailed opposition leader Victoire Ingabire. Ingabire was  arrested in the run-up to presidential elections and herself charged with negating genocide. The Rwandan High Court released Erlinder on June 17 "for health reasons", and he is now back in the US, but Rwanda says it has not dropped the proceedings. 

The Appeals Chamber ruling, obtained by Hirondelle News Agency on Tuesday, says that Erlinder should benefit from immunity but only in the context of his work as a defence lawyer for an Accused of the ICTR.

"The Appeals Chamber recalls that, at the time of his arrest, Erlinder was not in Rwanda in his capacity as Ntabakuze's defence counsel," says the Appeals Court. "He was therefore not immune from personal arrest and detention."

"Nonetheless, Erlinder benefits from immunity from legal process in respect of words spoken or written and acts done by him in the course of his representation of  Ntabakuze before the ICTR."

The majority of documents forming the base of Rwandan allegations against Erlinder were published in the context of his private or academic life and not in the context of his ICTR work,   the Appeals Court said. It therefore declined to make any ruling on them. However, one document is a press cutting related to a statement he made before the ICTR in May 2007. The Court said that to include this was a violation of Erlinder's immunity.

In a press conference on Monday, Rwandan Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama promised that the document would be removed, in line with the Appeals Court ruling. The Minister said that proceedings against Erlinder had not been dropped. He said Erlinder had left his address with the Rwandan authorities and could be contacted at any time. "There is no date limit on that," he said.

Erlinder is a strong opponent of the current Rwandan government and has accused the ICTR  of covering up crimes allegedly committed in 1994 by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) of President Paul Kagame.


© Hirondelle News Agency