Kigali: Many people in the United States appear confused as to why a Rwandan court continues to prosecute US lawyer and prominent genocide denier, Peter Erlinder. They say he is 62 years old and unwell, physically and mentally. In their eyes, his views about the 1994 genocide may be extreme and offensive to Rwandans, but surely he is entitled to his opinion.
He is a lawyer and an academic, professions that can thrive only with the maximum allowable freedom of speech. I hear the US Government is now calling for Mr. Erlinder's release on compassionate grounds, and many people seem surprised that Rwanda has not relented given our close bilateral ties since the end of the genocide.
Every day, I welcome visitors from across the world to the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda. In my own faulting and inadequate way, I try to explain to them the events of 1994 when one million of my countrymen and women, including many of my own friends and family members, were systematically murdered in a meticulously planned genocide.
Every day, I witness in the faces of these visitors a mixture of horror, confusion, anger and extraordinary sadness. The sheer brutality and nihilism of the genocide defies comprehension. Every day, my staff and I speak to our visitors of unspeakable things, not to shock or move them to tears, but to build greater understanding of our country's tragic and traumatic past as a way to prevent repetition of these events here or in any corner of this world.
Peter Erlinder is one of a handful of activists who have built a career from denying that this genocide ever occurred. He believes the deaths in 1994 - over one million of them -- were collateral damage in a typically brutish African civil war. Mr. Erlinder has defended genocide perpetrators -- as a lawyer, that is his job-- but he continued to peddle his dangerous and distorted theories long after the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda ruled that they amounted to inadmissible lies.
Perhaps in the US this makes Mr. Erlinder simply an eccentric professor, guilty of nothing more than possessing deranged views. Rwanda has never asked for his arrest because we understand that, in the US, the constitution allows him to say these things with impunity.
But Mr. Erlinder came to Rwanda of his own volition. He arrived at Kigali Airport fully aware of the laws against people who deny or defend the genocide. He is, after all, a law professor and his arrest must not have come as a surprise. The only explanation for his behavior is that he did not believe that Rwanda would prosecute a US citizen. Perhaps he believed that genocide denial was a crime in name only, and that he would be left alone. As is now clear, this was a fateful miscalculation -- both of the seriousness of these laws, and the determination of the government to prosecute them on behalf of the Rwandan people.
As a genocide survivor, I believe these laws are vital to our country's current and future peace and stability. Genocide ideology is not an abstract concept to Rwandans. The genocide in 1994 would not have occurred without the methodical and deliberate promulgation of an ideology that demanded the outright extermination of Tutsis.
Over 16 short years, we have worked hard as a people to forge a new national identity that puts the ethnic hatred that triggered the genocide behind us. Our only choice as a country has been to pursue unity and reconciliation with resolute focus.
Critics of my country love to talk about freedom and the rights of people like Peter Erlinder. The Rwandan people -- and genocide survivors like me -- also believe in these things: the right to live in peace; the right to economic security; the freedom to raise a family without fear and violence; and, above all, freedom from the horrendous bloodshed that afflicted our homeland less than a generation ago.
It is beyond insulting for Mr. Erlinder to insist in conferences and academic papers, and to whomever will listen, that the genocide that killed both my parents and four of my sisters is a figment of my imagination. In Rwanda, my country, he does not have the right to tell these lies and spread these distortions.
His actions stir up old hatreds and gives comfort to armies of terrorists who sit in wait at our borders for the chance to strike again. Perhaps one day, we will not need these laws because the Rwandan people will have moved past and beyond this tragic period. But not yet. For now, every Rwandan I know would place our right to protect our nation's peace and stability ahead of Mr. Erlinder's right to endanger them.
Freddy Umutanguha is the Director, Kigali Genocide Memorial Center, and a Genocide survivor
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