I don’t intend to make juxtapositions of the US and Rwanda a running theme here, but some of the issues raised in an Economist briefing sprang forth to me like a con out of an unlocked cell:
Many [US] laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.
Here’s an article written by my friend about the arrest of a US lawyer in Rwanda for “genocide denial”:
Ngoga declined to give details of what Erlinder is accused of saying, other than that the statements were made outside Rwanda.
However, the legal source said they concerned remarks made about President Paul Kagame, who has led Rwanda since the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people died.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, those found guilty of genocide denial — grossly minimising or attempting to justify the genocide — are liable to 10-20 years in prison.
Rights groups say the law against hate-speech is vague and frequently used by the government to silence opposition.
That sounds kind of crappy, don’t it? But in the US the problem is worse, because you get vagueness and abundance! Back to the briefing:
“You can serve federal time for interstate transport of water hyacinths, trafficking in unlicensed dentures, or misappropriating the likeness of Woodsy Owl.”
“You’re (probably) a federal criminal,” declares Alex Kozinski, an appeals-court judge, in a provocative essay of that title.
We’re all illegals criminals in some way or another—ooo, a tingle just went down my spine.
When the US lawyer was jailed for several weeks in Kigali, every new article about it from The New Times had a quote from someone or another within the criminal justice system pretty much like this:
“The Prosecution of Peter Erlinder is not a political tactic; it is an act of justice. If critics disagree with the Rwandan laws against the denial or defence of Genocide, we invite and welcome that debate.
“The Government of Rwanda takes no pleasure from Mr. Erlinder’s plight, but this needs to be understood; flagrant and orchestrated breaches of our Genocide ideology laws will be met with the full force of the law,” Mushikiwabo said.
“Perhaps Mr. Erlinder thought that his citizenship, academic standing or media profile woul protect him — why else would a law professor so knowingly and deliberately break the law by entering Rwanda? But he failed to understand that Genocide defenders and deniers — however rich, powerful or well connected — are regarded by Rwandans as serious criminals hell-bent on destabilising our nation”.
Last week, Mushikiwabo said that Rwanda would not short-circuit legal procedures and release the lawyer, despite a request by the United States to release him on compassionate and humanitarian grounds.
President Kagame has echoed this position in interviews with western media: our laws may not suit you in some ways, but we’re not going to just ignore our laws and let lawbreakers run amok. One is tempted to argue that justice is better served by a different attitude toward law, but the fresh aromatics of water hyacinths can be so distracting…