Crime & Courts

Wichita lawyer faces Rwanda threat

A timely letter from Kansas may have kept a Wichita lawyer out of jail last week in central Africa.

Kurt Kerns has traveled to Rwanda during the past year to interview witnesses in a federal case in Wichita involving a Kansas man accused of participating in that country's genocide 16 years ago.

As part of that case, Kerns had consulted with Peter Erlinder, a law professor from Minnesota, whose opinions on the genocide were critical of the current Rwandan government.

Then last week, Erlinder found himself in a Rwandan jail, and Kerns was in that nation's capital defending the professor amid growing tension over the upcoming presidential election.

"He wanted me to watch his back and he'd watch mine because this election was heating up," Kerns said last weekend by telephone from Hotel Rwanda.

Kerns then enraged Rwandan officials and found himself under threat of arrest.

But a letter from the president of the Kansas Bar Association may have kept Kerns out of jail.

The letter

In Rwanda, a judge demanded Kerns prove he was a lawyer in good standing.

Dan Monnat, a Wichita defense attorney, said he received a call last weekend from Kerns looking for help.

"The Rwandan court wanted a letter from the president of the Kansas Bar Association," Monnat said.

Monnat said he helped contact KBA president Tim O'Brien in Overland Park. O'Brien typed up a letter on KBA stationary, scanned it and e-mailed it to Kerns.

That letter allowed Kerns to be admitted to the Rwandan bar association, protecting him from arrest. Those admitted to practice law in Rwanda are protected for arguing on behalf of their clients, Kerns said.

He would need that protection.

Known for his outspoken passion in American courtrooms, Kerns drew fire from a Rwandan prosecutor for calling police there "punks."

"While the arresting officers were punks, his guards are treating him well," Kerns said in an e-mail to the online news site, Twin Cities Daily Planet, in describing Erlinder's arrest.

"That quote got me almost arrested and kicked out of the country," Kerns said.

Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga threatened to have Kerns expelled from the country. Kerns said he apologized in the national press.

"I was pretty concerned," said Kerns, who noticed police and officials following him last week.

Kerns said the timing of his acceptance in the Rwandan legal bar kept him free.

"Tim O'Brien basically saved me from an arrest, I think," Kerns said.

Rwandan connection

Both Kerns' case in Wichita and Erlinder's imprisonment surround a civil war and genocide that took place in Rwanda 16 years ago.

Some 800,000 people died in 100 days of violent ethnic battles in Rwanda during the spring and summer of 1994.

Kerns' client, Lazare Kobagaya, of Kansas, was charged last year in federal court in Wichita in connection with the killings.

Federal prosecutors say Kobagaya, now an American citizen, lied on his immigration papers about being in Rwanda during the slaughter.

The indictment said Kobagaya, now 83, helped lead attacks during the Rwandan genocide. Kobagaya and his family deny his involvement.

As part of the case, Kerns sought out Erlinder, an attorney who teaches at William Mitchell College of Law in Minnesota.

Erlinder had defended people charged with war crimes, including accused genocide leaders being tried in an international court in Tanzania.

In court cases, articles and books, Erlinder has been critical of President Paul Kagame. Erlinder has suggested the president had contributed to the killing, while leading troops that eventually quelled the civil war and put him in office.

"That's what he's in prison for now — writing bad articles that they don't like," Kerns said.

Today in Rwanda, it's against the law to contradict the government's version of the genocide.

International incident

Two weeks ago a challenger for the August presidential elections was arrested for questioning the genocide.

Victoire Ingabire visited a memorial to members of the Tutsi ethnic group, who were slaughtered by extremists from the Hutus.

But moderate Hutus were also killed, and Ingabire asked whether there should be a memorial to those people.

Ingabire is a Hutu. Kagame is a Tutsi.

Those comments resulted in Ingabire's arrest.

Erlinder went to Rwanda to defend Ingabire as her attorney. Then he was arrested.

Erlinder was charged Friday with denying the genocide. He faces 25 years if convicted.

Erlinder's family went to Washington, D.C., last week to ask for help in securing his release.

The International Criminal Defence Attorneys Association (ICDAA) also condemned Erlinder's arrest.

Meanwhile, Erlinder ended up in the hospital. Reports from the Rwandan news service first said he faked a heart attack. Then the same news agency reported that Erlinder tried to commit suicide.

Erlinder's family told reporters he'd taken an overdose of his high blood pressure and cholesterol medicine to get to the hospital and out of squalid conditions in the Rwandan prison.

Attempted suicide is a crime in Rwanda, so Erlinder faced further charges.


On Monday, a judge denied Erlinder's bail.

He will remain in detention for 30 days and can appeal the bail decision in five days. His lawyers said they are going to appeal immediately to Rwanda's high court.

Kerns was scheduled to leave Rwanda today for Kansas.

In a Wichita courtroom, Kerns had argued that finding witnesses for his defense had been nearly impossible because they feared being jailed. That's what happened to Erlinder, he said.

Kerns didn't want to comment on what kind of impact, if any, events of the past week would have on his case in Wichita.

"I do think it represents what people are up against over here," Kerns said. "You say what the government wants you to say, or you get put in prison."

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