Letter from Kansas Bar Prez May Have Kept Lawyer Out of Rwandan Jail
Posted Jun 9, 2010 5:00 AM CST
By Debra Cassens Weiss
Rwanda is apparently a dangerous country for outspoken U.S. lawyers.
A Wichita lawyer says a letter from the president of the Kansas Bar Association may be the reason he avoided arrest last week for making comments critical of Rwandan police.
Lawyer Kurt Kerns was in Rwanda to interview witnesses for a federal trial in Wichita when he commented about the arrest of another lawyer, William Mitchell College of Law professor Peter Erlinder, the Wichita Eagle reports. Both Erlinder and Kerns had promised to watch each other’s back while in the country.
Kerns told the Wichita Eagle he was nearly arrested for this comment about Erlinder’s arrest, made to the website Twin Cities Daily Planet: "While the arresting officers were punks, his guards are treating him well.”
Erlinder was arrested under a law that prohibits anyone from denying or minimizing the genocide that took place in the country in 1994. The Minnesota law professor had been in Rwanda to defend an opposition political candidate who was charged under the same law. Kerns was in the country to gather evidence on behalf of a client charged with lying in U.S. immigration papers about his participation in Rwandan genocide.
After Kerns commented, a Rwandan judge demanded to know whether Kerns was a lawyer in good standing. Kerns made a call to a Wichita lawyer, who contacted Kansas Bar Association President Tim O'Brien in Overland Park. O'Brien wrote a letter confirming Kern’s bar membership, allowing Kerns to be admitted to the Rwandan bar association, the story says. That saved him from arrest, Kerns said, since local bar members in the country are protected when they argue on behalf of clients.
"Tim O'Brien basically saved me from an arrest, I think," Kerns told the Wichita Eagle.
Erlinder remains in a Rwandan jail after a judge denied bail on Monday.