James Pirtle is a trial lawyer and owner of The Sentinel Law Group, PLLC, a Seattle law firm and he is an attorney on the ground for Legal Advocacy Worldwide (LAW), a non-profit devoted to financing direct legal advocacy on behalf of the oppressed abroad, including the state-sanctioned persecution of the LGBT community in Africa. This blog chronicles how his involvement in the defense of Thomas Kwoyelo, a former child soldier in the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda, developed into a broad international human rights practice with crusading Ugandan attorney John Francis Onyango. This blog begins with their involvement in the Kwoyelo case and continues with updates and developments in the human rights cases. Read from the bottom up to see how it all unfolds.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Blog Bost 23 - The Anti-Homosexuality (Kill the Gays) Bill

Blog Post 23 – The Anti-Homosexuality (Kill the Gays) Bill
When last I wrote in October, I let everyone know about the creation of Legal Advocacy Worldwide (LAW) , a new non-profit that is supporting our efforts at direct legal advocacy in the human rights arena.  Initial fundraisers are in the planning phase to raise money to secure their 501(c)(3) tax exempt status and hopefully raise even more so that we can fly Francis to Seattle in February.  We will have another event when he is here and I hope that any of you that can make it will do so and meet this extraordinary man.  I will announce as details fall together.
I also had a productive meeting with Seattle University School of Law and discussed future collaboration with the International Law Clinic.  The contours of that relationship are yet to be defined but I look forward to a mutually beneficial relationship wherein we can access their resources and give students the opportunity to help work on the cases.
I am happy to report that the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Gambia is going to hear our petition on Kwoyelo’s illegal detention next month.  I will, of course, keep you abreast of all of the developments in his case.
But tonight I am writing about the human rights work.  In November, Rebecca Kadaga, the speaker of Uganda’s parliament, stated that they would pass the Anti-Homosexuality (Kill the Gays) Bill prior to the end of their session as a Christmas gift to the people of Uganda.  As repugnant as this is on a variety of levels, at least the parliamentary session ended without the bill having passed.  Here is a link to a New Yorker article about what transpired.
The man in the photograph is Frank Mugisha, the director of Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG).  I wrote about meeting with him and Francis in Post 21.  Here is another article from the Observer in Uganda discussing not so much how the legislation is morally odious but how it is detrimental to Uganda’s economy and we have a strategy to challenge it.  LAW is in existence to make it financially possible to do just that.  We have also been promised assistance from Human Dignity Trust, a UK pro-human rights organization:  
Once again, I will be sending out notices regarding our fundraisers and hope that those of you who can attend will do so and those of you who can’t can still easily donate to LAW here:  Please tell your friends.  We really need the help.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Blog Post 22 - African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights

The last several months have been fairly active.  I'm delighted to announce the formation of Legal Advocacy Wordwide (LAW), a new non profit corporation set up to fund our human rights cases in Africa.  What sets this organization apart is that we are not just observing and reporting on events, we are involved in direct legal advocacy.  I want to specially thank the director of the organization, Dylan Doty, for his tireless efforts in getting everything set up.  The distinguished Board of Directors also includes Professor Ned Markosian, Professor Won Kidane, Washington State Representative Roger Goodman, Lt.Cmdr Greg Reilly, Melissa Nunes, and Amber Asbjornsen.  Melissa has been helping me from the beginning of my involvement in this work and Amber (my sister) is an experienced fundraiser and if you look closely you will see that she posts all of my blogging on this site.

In June, The Seattle Weekly ran a front page story about my involvement in the Kwoyelo Case:  There are some factual inaccuracies and the story is a little sensational but it has helped generate interest and publicity for the work.  In fact, we have been in touch with the RFK Center and they have expressed interest in being involved in future human rights cases.

As for the cases, Thomas Kwoyelo still languishes in Luzira Prison.  The Supreme Court of Uganda does not have a quorum and there is no indication when they will.  Having essentially exhausted legal recourse in Uganda, Francis and I have decided to petition the African Commission on Human and People's Rights for a declaration and order that our client deserves his freedom.  This article has several quotes taken from our petition:  I will keep my loyal readers updated as events unfold.

We have also filed suit against Uganda for violating the freedom of assembly rights of an LGBT group that was holding a conference in Entebbe.  They were raided and scattered by the government even though there was no activity taking place in contravention of existing morality laws.  We are expecting the state's response to this suit within a week or two.

So, as I mentioned, things have been rather active.  But we are pushing on and I think now have the infrastructure in place to really start making a difference.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Blog Post 21: War Crimes and Hate Crimes - This Chapter Ends

The last weekend is pretty mellow as we are now waiting until Monday to see if I can get into Luzira Prison to see Kwoyelo.  I decided to take the down time to get some shopping and relaxing in.  A lot of the streets in my neighborhood were blocked off by army types as Musevini was attending the grand opening of a new bank.  Thus, I took a circuitous route to the crafts market.  Even though dealing with the hard sale ladies at the market can be a bit of a hassle, they are incorrigible flirts so I always have fun when I go there.  I received a marriage proposition and one for my brother (I guess because the first lady got dibs on me).

On the way back to the hotel I decided I would try to make nice with the police.  I walked up to a group of them, gave them my best smile, introduced myself, and started asking their names.  A group of three young ones were amenable so in short order we were chuckling and laughing and asking questions of one another.  One dour older cop was off to the side eyeballing us in an angry fashion.  I suggested the young ones and I get a photo together.  Their disposition changed and said that they could not.  It was against regulations.  Then one whispered, “If you pay that man (the dour skulky one), maybe he will let you have a photo with us.”

So I asked him, “May I take a photo with these people?”


“Come on, how many shillings?”

“20,000 ($8.00).”

“20,000?!  An outrage!  Highway robbery!  1,000.”


Young cop, “He will let you do it for 10,000.”

“Fine.  10,000.”

I pulled out my camera.  He pulled out his machine gun.  “Go A-Way!”

I complied.  I don’t have any photos with the police.

I took myself out for pizza Sunday night and went to bed at a reasonable hour anticipating Monday would be busy.  Monday was very busy.

Luzira Prison
Francis and I met for breakfast and then went to his office to wait on word from the prison ministry regarding my permission slip.  Annet kept calling over there and hassling them until it finally got done.  They sent a messenger over to pick it up for me.

Francis and Annet had a conversation and Francis told me to give Kwoyelo his greetings.  “Um, you aren’t coming with me?”  “No, Annet will drop you off at prison.”

I’m going to go to Luzira Prison by myself??  Gulp.  Did I remember to wear my big boy lawyer pants?

At the last minute Francis changes his mind and decides he wants to come along after all (thank the mighty heavens).  We got a taxi to take us out there but unfortunately the windows wouldn’t roll down so it was an extra roasty sweaty drive to Luzira.

Once there, however, it was surprisingly easy passing through the checkpoints and getting into the prison.  We just walked in like we owned the place.  Not a single guard gave us any hassle.  Some greeted Francis like a celebrity.  “Counselor!  Welcome back!  Long time!  We have missed you!   And who is this?”

In fact, this time we did not have to traverse the yard and the general population for our meeting. The Officer in Charge said that we could use his office.  Francis tells me he doesn’t have much he wants to discuss with Kwoyelo so the time is mine with him to discuss whatever I want.  He reminds me that Kwoyelo is chatty by nature and also very frustrated so the conversation could be long.  Like I wrote before, I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to him.

Then Kwoyelo was there.  I recognized his small frame immediately and I stood up to go greet him in much the same fashion as last time.  This time he doesn’t look at me shyly, but rather with child-like delight.  He actually speaks to me in a little bit in English, “I am happy you are here!  Welcome!  Yes, please!  I am happy!  Welcome welcome! Yes, please!”

We have a new translator which also comes with some good news!  Alfred has been freed (see Post 9).  It appears the state could not present enough evidence for the trial judge to even allow formal proceedings to commence.  You know, maybe there is hope.

The four of us huddle together and spoke for about an hour.  Again, I can’t discuss the contents.  I will share this, however:  At one point Kwoyelo wanted the translator to tell me that he knows that Jesus and the Holy Spirit have chosen me and sent me to protect him.  He knows that when white people and black people work together that it is a sign of God’s divine influence.

What do I say to that?  I think I said, “I am here with you, whether I am in Africa or America, you are not forgotten.  I will fight for you.  I cannot promise you how this will end, but I do promise to be with you at the end no matter what.”  He teared up and clasped my hands.

I parted ways with Kwoyelo and Luzira Prison with mixed emotions.  But I still feel confident.  I think we can win this thing.  Not like we haven’t already, but I mean WIN IT win it.

Francis and I left the prison to go meet with Nicholas whom I’ve not had a chance to see yet this trip.  He’s been in Rwanda working on the Ingabire political trial

I’m excited after this meeting.  Nicholas has proposed that we petition the Supreme Court (in an unprecedented move) to get them to grant bail to Kwoyelo pending arguments which could well be a year or two away.  I am thinking, we get bail, get Kwoyelo home, the government loses interest as they have Acellam in custody, and Kwoyelo quietly slips into the shadows not to be thought of again.  We need that bail first.  The government has tried to allege that Kwoyelo has had contact with LRA financiers and if released he will just go back onto the field.  Two judges have already called this argument bullshit.  Which it is.

But that reminds me of something interesting:  Kwoyelo said that security personnel have tried to contact him at prison.  He said he has thus far refused to meet with them because he is scared.  Hell, I would be, too.  Of course I am outraged at this attempted ex parte government contact with my client.  Francis is uncertain as to whether this is real or not.  He just told Kwoyelo that if anyone says they want to meet with him he has to have counsel present.  Besides being outraged, I’m wondering what the hell they would want.  We’ll keep an eye on this.

Next stop, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG).  This is a LGBT activist group/network.  Their CEO, whom I’m about to meet, has received a Kennedy Award for his human rights work and has also been acknowledged by Andrew Cuomo amongst other accolades.  SMUG is also the group that brought the suit against American evangelist Scott Lively.

Back in the hot taxi it is so roasty that I can’t keep my eyes open.  When I woke we were deep into the suburbs of Kampala.  Sort of the middle of nowhere.  I’m curious.

Turns out that SMUG totally has a secret hideout!  This is awesome!  We had to squeeze through a tiny metal gate guarded by a (not terribly formidable) little guy. But inside their modest compound is all sorts of gay pride decorations and posters. They are a serious lot.  There are five of them in the hideout and they all look very focused.  We are summoned into another chamber, their war room, I suppose, and Francis tells me to simply talk to them about our plans.  So I do.  I explained that we are developing this human rights practice and want to collaborate with them in any way we can.  I also tell them that their super-secret hideout is extra pimpy and that I want one for my firm.  Not many laughs.

(Later Francis tells me that their super-secret hideout is a poorly kept secret from the police.  There are many moles/informants that readily rat out gay activists.  Francis says it is only a matter of time before they all get rounded up in a raid.)

Their moods may be dark because the CEO turns to Francis and starts to tell him about one of theirs that has been kidnapped and tortured repeatedly and has had the demand placed on him that he renounce homosexuality.  Kidnapped and tortured by whom, we don’t know, but it is another case.  And a hate crime.  Not that it really matters here.  Francis is on it.

A photo of Kristen from her blog
Then it’s back to Francis’s office for yet another meeting with a human rights guy.  The day is wearing on and I am still hoping to meet with my sister Amber’s friend, Kristen Pettet, who is here as a health educator in rural Uganda.  I did get to see here after I made some copies of pleadings.  We met at a café in Garden City and each ordered a milk shake.  She is a very impressive young woman and incidentally has a blog of her own which I will now plug:

Back to the hotel and then I shower, pack, then meet with Francis and Annet for one last drink before I go.  I think the drink lasted a little too long because, unbeknownst to me, we were actually super late getting me to the airport.  Annet was pulling me out of the car and grabbing my bags and running for the departure gate.  What’s the rush, I wonder? 

Well, the woman at the departure gate says I am too late.  I can’t get on.  Annet’s dark face turns crimson and she booms, “YOU WILL LET HIM PASS!” and she shoved my bags at the lady.  Jeez.  I was just thinking, “Well, this sucks.  I guess I’ll blog about it.”  But the woman cowered in fear and next thing you know I’m through the gate, security, and customs.  Then I’m airborne.  Annet is a bad ass.  That or she really wanted to get rid of me.

I’m writing this in Amsterdam waiting on my final flight home.  Nothing is really over but this is the conclusion of this particular adventure.  A lot of good work has been done.  But now I am ready to be home.

I pass through passport control one last time before I catch my flight home.  The agent asks me what I was doing in Africa.


“What kind of business?”

“I’m an attorney.”

“What kind?  Corporate?”

“War Crimes.”

“Do you work for the ICC?”

“No, I’m in private practice.  I do war crimes defense.”

“Defense? What, do you represent Joseph Kony or something?”

I can’t tell if this is snarky.  I just smile at him, wink, and say:

“Not yet.”

Monday, June 11, 2012

Blog Post 20 – The Road to Jinja

I woke up early in preparation to meet with Gabriel Oosthuizen.  I was feeling poorly in my stomach.  I have determined that “goats” don’t agree with me and they are off the menu for the remainder of my time here.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the meeting.  Francis called and said he wouldn’t be able to join us.

I flagged down a booda outside of the hotel and told him where I needed to go.  He asked another booda about my destination and they appeared puzzled.  I had mapped the location and distance the night prior, but I didn’t feel like walking the two clicks in the heat with a menaced stomach.

The boodas seem to come to consensus and I hopped on.  Off we went and in short order I was hassling him as I was sure he was taking me in the opposite direction of where I needed to be.  Thankfully he ignored me as it turns out he knew exactly where he was going and god knows where I would have wound up if we had gone my way.

I met Gabriel and a fancy café in a part of town I have not previously been.  He spotted me before I him.  Gabriel was seated outside in a corner spot.  He appears to be a few years older than I but I have more gray hair.  He actually looks a lot like my brother.  I liked him immediately. Gabriel is currently Executive Director of International Criminal Law Services (ICLS).  Before joining ICLS, he served inter alia as legal adviser to judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and head of a legal unit in the UN’s Kosovo mission.   He has provided consultancy services on a range of issues, including international criminal law, human rights, security, development and international affairs.

We made introductions, I sat down, ordered some tea, and he looked at me quizzically and asked, “How the hell did you get involved in all of this?”  Indeed. 

What I thought would be a short conversation with him as he told me he probably had “conflicts” turned into three hours of the most beneficial and enlightening conversations I have had with another human being in recent memory.

Perhaps it is for the best, but he told me that our conversation had to be strictly off the record.  You see, Gabriel has been here for some time and knows more about the players in this dangerous game than anyone else.  He not only served as an advisor to set up the ICD, he also instructed both the state and (previously unknown to me) the defense on how to handle cases of this magnitude.  I guess I can simply say that after I left that meeting I felt for the first time that I knew exactly what I was doing and how best to proceed from here.  I have my confidence and strategy; only time will tell if that is enough to carry the day.

Meanwhile, back in Francis’s office, he and Annet were preparing my paperwork for the prison ministry so I can back into Luzira to meet with Kwoyelo.  Naturally, there are problems with the paperwork and it will not be processed immediately.  Annet later tells me it is the angry fat woman that is the problem (again).  

Francis and I were invited to speak to an NGO in Jinja (the Source) on Friday morning.  He suggested we bring Annet along and make a day of it.  Not much else to do while my paperwork was getting processed.  We left relatively early on Friday morning and once again I was captivated by what I saw outside of the window and beyond.  This time I brought my video camera so I can replay the scenes to anyone who is interested.

We stopped at the same roadside place with chickens and gizzards on sticks but this time I passed entirely.  Stupid goats.  I want to feel better.

Our audience in Jinja consisted primarily of American and British college students here in Africa trying to save the world.  Francis gave a wonky lecture and power point presentation on the law as applied to minors in Uganda.  It got more interesting to the students when he started talking about child soldiers.  I took over from there and led a discussion on Invisible Children and Kony 2012.  

Afterward, the administrator of the program came up to us to thank us.  But then she said that she is having a very difficult time understanding how it is that we are doing what we are doing.  Namely, how can we defend such a person as Kwoyelo?  Has he not murdered?  Has he not kidnapped?  Has he not helped destroy the lives of thousands of people?  How can we do this?

I have been living and breathing this stuff for long enough now that I get surprised when people don’t readily understand the overwhelming merit and importance of our defense.  Of course she has a point.  I wrestled with these questions when I was first invited to join this team.

I will not forget how Francis addressed her concern:  “Madam, please understand that our client is himself a victim.  He was a child when he was taken from his family.  This government was supposed to protect him.  This government failed to protect him.  This government failed to create conditions to prevent him from being abducted and forced into war.  Now that he is no longer fighting, this same government that failed to protect him now wants to punish him.  This government wants to make him a victim again.  We want to stop this cycle.  We want him to go home to his family where he belongs.”


After that bit of profundity, Francis tried to find some spot for lunch and we wound up lost.  I really don’t mind being lost around here because everything I see is new and interesting.  Particularly when we are off the main roads I get to see how people truly live.

Some time later Francis got flummoxed and said we would just go back to the restaurant from last time (fish heads).  I told him that was fine because it is right on the Nile and is an otherwise perfectly lovely spot.  We ordered some beer, spoke about the law and the case, and had some lunch.  I did have a modest appetite at this point and wound up with some fried fish which was quite good.  Perhaps the “goats” plague has passed.

During lunch a large thunderstorm blew over us.  It was beautiful and captivating.  It rained a lot.  A lot.  This matters later.

Francis asked if I wanted to stay over in Jinja.  I said I didn’t really care.  I’m already paying for my room in Kampala so if we go back I won’t be out any extra money.  He agrees.

I fell asleep on the way back to Kampala but I awoke when the car was wobbling in odd ways.  I rubbed my eyes and it became quickly clear to me that we were not on the highway anymore.  We were on a single lane road (road is a generous euphemism for this strip of something that happens not to have plants growing on it) driving through thick brush.  Concerned, I asked, “What the hell?”

“Ah!  You are awake.  We are going to look at a farm I want to buy.”  Okay.  So we drive and drive.  At some point in the middle of nowhere Francis drives down a hill and stops where there are a few small structures and some crops growing.  Here it is.  We get out to look around but the mud is thick and deep and we are all in our fancy clothes.  I look at the mud.  I look at the car.  I look at the hill.  “Francis, we may have a problem.”

We have a problem.  This car isn’t going anywhere.  The tires are bald and this mud is brutal.  When I try to push the car it just slides.  The tires have no grip at all.  Annet and I fashioned an escape route using mulch to help the tires get traction.  We were feeling quite smart, except that our plan actually worked and while Francis gunned the engine and the tires took hold Annet and I got showered by the red mud spray from the spinning tires.  Covered in the mud of Africa.  At least the car is out.

Francis is clean (and chuckling in the "you just tripped and fell on your face" kind of a way).  Annet and I are grumpy.  It’s a fairly quiet drive back to Kampala while Annet and I pick mud flecks off our faces and flick them out the window.  Back at the hotel, I marched myself through the lobby of gawkers, went straight to my room, grabbed a Nile Special and brought it into the shower with me.

My petition to see Kwoyelo is still stuck at the ministry.  Turns out the authorities decided to take a retreat on Friday so we won’t know if I can get into Luzira to see Kwoyelo until Monday morning.  Of course I fly out Monday night.  No pressure.

I have stayed up too late typing.  Today's paper just slid under my door.

The headline reads, "KONY FLEES TO DARFUR"

Friday, June 8, 2012

Blog Post 19 – A Miscarriage of Justice

Francis met me at my hotel for lunch.  It was excellent seeing him again.  Though work was pressing, we spent most of the lunch catching up.  It’s strange that it has nearly been a year already.  I told him about my encounter with the police and he tells me that a German national Al Qaida operative is on the loose in Uganda which might explain why I got harassed on the way in from the airport.  No hard feelings, I guess.

We walked from the hotel to his office to talk about Kwoyelo.  I’m disappointed that he is not endorsing my plan to confront the DPP (attorney general).  His position is that the DPP has no real decision making authority here.  They are under orders to pursue this case to the bitter end.  Our concern is that the end will indeed be bitter.

I’ve spent the last two days poring over the pleadings, affidavits, and court rulings/orders.  We have the Constitutional Court agreeing with us; in rather strong language directed at the DPP, that Kwoyelo was denied equal protection.  They declined to entertain our request that any statements/admissions made by our client while he was being tortured be excluded.  Their position on that is that the statements/admissions have not been used against him yet so the issue is not ripe.  Nevertheless, they ordered the trial ceased on equal protection grounds and ordered the DPP to issue an amnesty certificate.  The International Crimes Division complied and ceased the trial (which has never technically started).  The DPP ignored the order and appealed to the Supreme Court (which does not have a quorum at this time so they can’t hear any cases – we are number one on appeal).  We therefore sued the DPP in the High Court for unlawful detention.  The High Court agreed with us and also ordered the DPP to issue the amnesty certificate.  The DPP refused and sought a temporary protective order from the Supreme Court to stay all orders until they can hear the case.  To our dismay, the Supreme Court issued such an order.  Kwoyelo is in prison indefinitely.

Caesar Acellam on May 20th, 2012
In mid-May, Caesar Acellam, a senior LRA officer (ostensibly #3 at this point), was “captured” in a heavily patrolled region in the DRC.

I quoted "captured" because this looks very much to me like a negotiated surrender.  He  is reported to have said that he fully expected to be granted amnesty.  I found this odd, since he outranks Kwoyelo and volunteered to be in the LRA (keep in mind my client was abducted as a child).  Just odd, all in all.  But then, surprisingly and without warning, the government let the Amnesty Act expire on May 25.  If the reporting is accurate, it expired before Acellam could even apply for amnesty.  Feel free to ignore the portion that discusses Kwoyelo because it is erroneous.

So now what?  We don’t know.   Certainly neither Francis nor I do.  “It appears our man (Kwoyelo) has complicated things greatly for this country,” he says.

What we do know is that it is unlikely that any members of the Constitutional Court will be appointed to the Supreme Court.  The court needs seven justices and as of now has only five.  The Constitutional Court ruled unanimously in favor of Kwoyelo.  That makes them poison pills for the government.  Even if appointed, they would theoretically have to recuse themselves for already having ruled on the case.  Then again, this is Africa, so I don’t know.

It’s increasingly clear that this case will not get resolved for a long time yet, and then not in favor of our client.  I asked Francis what he has told Kwoyelo because I can’t imagine his frustration and confusion.  Francis says he told him that we are working on it but also said he has not been to see him for some time.  I’m going to try to do the prison ministry dance tomorrow so I can get back into Luzira to see him.  But what am I going to tell him?  How am I supposed to help him understand this political bullshit when his life hangs in the balance?  I think my only option is tell him that I will not quit on him and I will fight until the end.  Maybe I’ll come up with something better between now and then but for now that’s all I have.

I am also going to meet with Gabriel Oosthuizen tomorrow morning pursuant to our connecting through Boni Meyersfeld.  Gabriel is Chief of Party for the Uganda Project for the Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG) which is a global pro bono law firm that provides legal assistance to states and governments with the negotiation and implementation of peace agreements, the drafting of post-conflict constitutions, and the creation and operation of war crimes tribunals.  He already told me he likely has a conflict given the Kwoyelo situation but has nevertheless agreed to have coffee with me in the morning.

As I finish tonight, optimism is diminished.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Blog Post 18 - Leaving South Africa

Things have been generally mellow over the last few days though my anxiety about what I need to do in Uganda has been building.

The remainder of the classes were interesting though I did duck out of the last one so that I could visit the Origins Center at Wits which chronicles human history to its, well, origins, with artifacts, fossils, and ancient art.  Fascinating.

One of our last dinners entailed worms and ostrich.


post worm

We also went on Safari on Saturday and saw most of Africa’s awesome beasties.  Offhand, I recall zebra, wildebeest, springbok, elephant, rhinoceros, lions…there are probably more.  I tried to load videos but with it taking an hour for about ten seconds of video to load, I rapidly lost interest in the project.

Zebra on the Safari

On Sunday, Melissa Muir and I (mostly her, I just helped shop and chop things) put on a bit of a party at the guest houses.  Most everyone remaining showed up and some nice words were shared about Anna Dey and me as we two are the ones that are leaving.  I felt rather sad about it all because these people are wonderful and I made some exceptional relationships in a very short amount of time.  I lament not coming to Uganda first so that I could have had this lovely experience afterward.  But obviously, that would not have worked, and off I go.

I did get to see Mario one last time.  I love that kid.  I think he is the younger brother I never had.

Mario and me
Today I flew from Joburg to Kigali in Rwanda where, like last time, there were difficulties with the aircraft so I found myself stuck.  I found an airport worker who looked a little shady and bribed him to take me someplace where I could smoke.  He agreed and snuck me off into an antechamber at the airport.  We passed a few women who looked suspicious and they had some words, but I did get to have at least part of a cigarette.  You see, as soon as he left, the women set upon me clucking disapprovingly and chased me off in a cloud of aerosol air freshener.

Once I finally boarded I sacked out immediately and woke up when we landed in Entebbe.  Fortune smiled (I think) when I breezed through passport control and they did not make me buy a new visa.  I hope that doesn’t bite me on the way out.  Francis let me know earlier that he was not going to be able to meet me and Charles is out of town.  I figured I’d make it work somehow.

“Somehow” turned out to be easier than I thought as I saw someone with my hotel’s sign trying to find another passenger.  Turns out said passenger missed his flight and they were more than willing to take me in his stead.  They did try to extort me which I wasn’t standing for and I got my ride for the appropriate price.

It wasn’t long after we, the driver and I, left the airport…say maybe ten minutes or so…that we ran into a police road block.  They pulled us over, demanded we exit the vehicle, then spread us and searched us up against the taxi.  I got the usual question, “What are you doing here?”

“I’m an attorney.”

“I don’t care.  What are you doing here?”

“I’m an attorney here on business.”

“What business?”

“I consult with African law firms to help them understand changes in international law.”

That worked, but I don’t feel particularly comfortable being dishonest to people with machine guns.  I didn’t think it wise on the spot to tell them that I am here to try to get an accused war criminal released.  They let us go.  Unfortunately, that will not be the last of my encounters with Ugandan law enforcement.  But I knew beforehand what I was getting into.  And planning to do.

Now I am back at the Grand Imperial Hotel and treating myself to a well-deserved and long-missed Nile Special.  I don’t like this room as much as the last one I had when I was here, but maybe I am simply already missing my sweet digs in South Africa.

Nevertheless, I know that I am about to have my favorite breakfast and tea in the world tomorrow morning; I will meet with Francis, and then we’ll get this party started.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Blog Post 17: Apartheid and a Founding Father

I overslept on Wednesday morning and missed my coveted breakfast.  I hoped this did not portend an ill-fated day.  Luckily, it did not.

I attended the first lecture of the day but decided to duck out at the break to go meet with Bonnie.  I went to the CALS but she was on a conference call so I settled into the waiting area with some tea and an alumni magazine.  I read an interesting article about recent fossil discoveries outside of Johannesburg that indicate a possible link in the genus homo.  There is also a museum here at Wits on “origins” which I hope to visit before I leave.

The nice lady that brought me the tea led me down the corridor to Bonnie’s office.  Bonnie is a very handsome, accomplished, and well-connected woman.  I did not have to speak for very long before she simply started drafting an email to me with a variety of people in the human rights and international criminal law communities for me to get in touch with.  What is even better, two of them are working in Uganda right now.  I am preparing letters of introduction to them now and with any luck I will have meetings set up before I even arrive in Kampala.  I gave Bonnie my gratitude and we parted ways with assurances that we would stay in touch.

I had lunch with the professors and a few other lawyers before we took a field trip to the apartheid museum in the afternoon.  The museum is fascinating.  I was in high school when this nation was being reborn but I honestly don’t remember much discussion about it.  South Africa’s long struggle with itself is so complex and tragic and hopeful that I can’t really get into it here.  I will say that this place has incredible potential but is deeply fractured and wounded by its past.  I hope they make it.

I forgot to mention that Jakes, the man who runs the B&B where I am staying, ran me down at some point on Tuesday telling me that I was going to be changing rooms.  I told him I was fine where I was but he insisted that I trust him.  He said that the staff would move all of my stuff for me while I was out for the day.  When we got back from the museum, I picked up the keys to my new room and was quite surprised when I saw it.  For where I am and what it is, they moved me into a palatial suite.  I now have a king sized bed, a parlor, European style bath (and shower, thankfully), a courtyard, etc.  Very nice.  I should have gone to Uganda first.

Anyway, I had an hour to get ready for dinner with Arthur Chaskalson so I drank a beer and took a shower.  I got all suited up and went to connect with the rest of the crowd.  I think the most common comment I received is that I clean up well.  Maybe I do.  Regardless, I was feeling respectable and confident.

Dinner was set to take place at the university.  When we arrived at the venue I was ushered to what is tantamount to the big kids’ table.  The room was large and I would guess had perhaps six tables seating about ten people each.  It was clear that this was going to be another buffet style dinner.  I sat with my colleagues and we opened a bottle of South African wine.  In relatively short order, former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson arrived.

Some people have such gravitas that they suck the air out of a room.  Arthur Chaskalson is such a man.  This man helped create a nation.  He is one of South Africa’s founding fathers.  Arthur is old but he has kind eyes and a nice smile.  He has gray bushy eyebrows and a full head of hair.  He walks slowly with a bit of a stoop.  The many deep wrinkles on his face betray of life full of enormous successes and failures.  I am about to break bread with this man.

We all stood as he made his way through the room to our table.  He insisted we sit so we did.  He settled in at my table three chairs down.  Conversations started up again around the room and Arthur was looking at me with a smile.  He said, “I’m not sure I know anyone at this table.”  I took the opportunity to introduce everyone at the table and then I shook his hand and introduced myself.  I said, “I am sincerely grateful to meet you, sir.  My name is James Pirtle and I am a war crimes defense and human rights lawyer.”  He seems a little surprised.

We settle back down in our chairs and he asks me, “War crimes?”

“Yes, in Uganda.  I am one of Thomas Kwoyelo’s attorneys.”

“The LRA?  They are cheeky buggers.  What is your argument?  That he didn’t do it?” he asks with a laugh.

“No, sir.  I already won the case on equal protection grounds.  The government simply refuses to release him which is why I am in Africa right now.”  He has a genuine look of shock on his face and it appeared he wanted to talk to me more but Laurel started to introduce him to the crowd.

After his formal introduction,  he gave a long and compelling speech about how precious and fragile democracy is, that it must be fought for every day, that human dignity is sacrosanct, and that each of us has the skill set and ability to be warriors in the long struggle to protect and preserve human rights and equality.  He also spoke at length about the development of the South African constitution referencing our own as a flawed but usable template.  For example, he said, we didn’t want to have a Marbury v. Madison (judicial review) so we just wrote it into our constitution.  Funny.  It was a very moving and compelling presentation.

After the speech, long lines formed to go through the buffet so decided to go out for a smoke with Mario.  Laurel ran me down, however, and told me that she and I were going to trade spots and I was going to sit next to Arthur.  She told me to march right back inside and get my plate.  I complied.     

I can’t really speak to what the buffet consisted of because it confused me.  It was really good.  I still tried everything and did not have a liver disaster repeat, thankfully.  (Update – Mario tells me the entrees were sautéed lamb with spinach and bacon wrapped chicken.  No wonder it was good).

Obviously, as we all sat and ate, Arthur was asked innumerable questions by the other guests at the table.  When there was a break in questioning, he turned to me and said, “So.  War crimes.  Do you want to talk about Guantanamo?”

Ugh.  I told him that I, along with a great many others, have great shame for some of what my country has done over the last decade.  He chuckled and said he was needling me.  The conversation turned more serious when we started to discuss the situation in Syria.  A lot of smart people were sitting at that table but no real good ideas for a solution arose.  I offered that I liked the idea of airlines voluntarily stopping service to Damascus.  That way there are effectively sanctions in place without the need to go through the Security Council where Russia and China would surely veto a resolution.  There were general murmurs of approval around the table until Arthur asked, “What about Russian, Chinese, and Iranian airlines?”  Ugh.  Now I feel dumb.

Some time later I asked him about his career and whether he had greater satisfaction as a jurist or as a trial lawyer.  Since he was South Africa’s first Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court during a time that a new nation was being born, that was his clear shining achievement in his career.  We also talked about dealing with losing cases we care deeply about.  He lost Mandela’s case and Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment.  Though we have technically won Kwoyelo’s case, there are still very uncomfortable odds that he will wind up in the ground.  Arthur just said, “Approach it like a doctor.  A doctor does his best but sometimes the patient dies.  It happens.  You will have to move on.”

Finally I got around to asking about people he might put me in touch with in the human rights community.  He asked me if I had met Bonnie yet.  Check.

James and Arthur Chaskalson
After dessert I realized that the law students were going to start lining up to get their photo taken with Arthur.  I took the opportunity to bring Mario over so that he could meet Arthur before things got chaotic and the evening ended.  I’m glad I did.  Mario is doing an internship at The Hague in the fall and they had an opportunity to chat for a few minutes.  Afterward, his glee was palpable.

When all of the photos were taken I thanked Arthur and went over to say goodnight to the dean.  We exchanged information and agreed to stay in touch regarding a future fellowship.

So that is it.  I have accomplished precisely what I set out to do in South Africa.  More so, really.  I have a few more days here to basically chill, go on safari, etc., before I go to Uganda and get back to work.  The next time I write I think I will discuss what has been happening over the last few weeks in Uganda.  These are exciting and troubling times.

It also happens to be precisely the right time for me to be here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Blog Post 16 - Johannesburg Days 1-3 (Situational Awareness)

I am in Johannesburg to do two things:  First, I saw an opportunity to dovetail my trip to Uganda with a Continued Legal Education (CLE) program that Seattle University is offering (in addition to a study abroad for law students) in South Africa.  This program is about the terrible history of South Africa, how they made a new constitution and a new country and how hard they are struggling to maintain it because of the deep wounds, racial inequality, and economic disparity that threatens to tear it apart every day.  Second, after consulting with Francis, we determined this might be a good opportunity to meet people who have fought and won in human rights struggles.  This has turned out to be spades.
My first day here started brilliantly with my deeply missed African breakfast:  four cups of African tea, crazy fruit salad with yogurt, sweet roll, bacon(ish) something, eggs, toast, sauteed mushrooms, and cherry tomatoes with basil.  How I have missed my African mornings!  Even though I only had three hours of sleep, I felt great and decided to go for a walk around my new neighborhood.  I managed to solve the adapter problem in short order and picked up a few supplies at the local grocery and managed to get some cash.

The only thing on the docket was a traditional BBQ called a braai  Basically a shit ton of meat.  When in Rome, eh?  This was the first time the entire group was together and my first opportunity to meet the South African faculty at Wits University.  We were all asked to briefly introduce ourselves and when my turn came I rose and simply said, “I am James Pirtle.  I am the war crimes guy.”  At this, Laurel Oates admonished me and said I had to share more.  I did.  I said precisely what my purpose is here.  Namely, I am a war crimes defense attorney but my Ugandan partner and I are developing a human rights practice and I am here to meet people active in that community to help us advance our cause.  I then gave the South Africans a knowing look and they all pointed at one woman.

Her name is Bonita (Bonnie) Meyersfled and she heads the Center for Applied Legal Studies at Witswatersrand (Wits - pronounced "Vits").  I spoke with her after the braai and she said that she would be delighted to learn more about my projects and named about four other people with whom she would get me in touch while I’m here.

I was thrilled.  I walked her to her car when she had to leave and when I returned a man was loitering where I had previously been sitting.  I approached him and he introduced himself as the dean of the law school.  He asked if I would walk with him while he gave everyone a tour of the university.  While we spoke, he became increasingly interested and inquisitive.  He too mentioned some names of people I needed to meet and asked if we could speak at length when we meet Arthur Chaskalson (Mandela's attorney and a founding father of the new South Africa) on Wednesday night.  Of course I agreed.  Then he paused for a moment and asked if I might be interested in doing a fellowship at Wits when I have some time between projects.  Needless to say, I am extremely humbled and flattered.  We’ll see how things unfold with that proposition.

After the braai and tour we all returned to our little abodes.  Some of the people in my community invited me and my new bff Mario to join them for a cocktail hour.  We sat around for a few hours chatting and getting to know one another.  Of course I had to tell the “how I got involved in war crimes” story again.  But these are all really interesting people with diverse biographies.  I’m pleased to be here. 

Day 2:

The first seminar of the day was a history of apartheid and the evolution of governance and the South African constitution through colonialism and apartheid to the present.  Naturally, everything we are learning about is about South Africa in one fashion or another.  Nevertheless, I find the lecturers willing to entertain my queries about the continent as a whole.  Occasionally I can even get them to engage concerning Uganda specifically.

After the lectures we took a tour of the old prison and the Constitutional Court.  While awful (they were prisons after all), Won Kitane and I agreed that if you gave it a paint job it wouldn’t look terribly different than contemporary prisons.  What’s more, even if the prison were still operational, it would be far superior to Luzira (where I will be next week).  Maybe the big difference is that there are not suffering faces to see here.

Constitutional Court
In the evening we took a trip to Soweto which stands for (Southwest Township).  It’s an historic area where the apartheid government placed black people after they were removed from urban Johannesburg.  The idea was to keep them close enough so they could come into the city to work but have to leave after so as to be out of sight.  The township now has approx. 2 million people.

We went to a world famous restaurant called Wandie’s.  It is traditional African fare served buffet style.  I was not close enough to the front of the line to hear what each of the dishes available was.  This did not serve me well when I ultimately took a big bite of liver.  Yeesh.  I slept all the way back home feeling a bit poorly.

Day 3:

I think I got a relatively full night of sleep.  It’s amazing how good I feel after I have my tea and breakfast (so far the only meals that have really pleased me).  More classes today and then the evening is supposed to be free.

I had a bit of a debate with one of the lecturers today regarding what makes it the case that people in particular countries have respect and reverence for their constitutions.  I have myself sworn to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.  The South African Constitution is not even 20-years-old.  It’s the most liberal constitution in the world.  It’s interesting, and frankly awesome, that they have canonized human dignity.  There is no death penalty.  Discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited. 

Although this is a very young democracy, the precepts and respect for the rule of law has taken root.  I am curious about this; that is, how is it that you can get virtually an entire country behind a particular foundational document in such short order?  I want to know why the Uganda Constitution appears not to be worth the paper it is printed on.  Our debate doesn’t lead to any good conclusions for me.  That said, I had a conversation with Laurel afterward which was helpful but depressing.  Her opinion is that there simply is no rule of law in Uganda.  It is a traditional tribal society that is historically very comfortable simply having one strong man in charge.    What’s more, the constitution they have is a function of colonial influence.  The British said, “Here, you need this document.”  It’s a western construct that just doesn’t resonate with average people.  Naturally this explains why we keep winning the Kwoyelo case on constitutional grounds and he is nevertheless still languishing in prison.  And nobody really seems to care.

I went out in the evening with Mario and some others for drinks and dinner.  I decided on pasta this time.  Much better than liver.

Tomorrow is going to be the most important day for me while I am in South Africa.  I have my meeting with Bonnie and later I will be sitting with Arthur Chaskalson for dinner.  Chaskalson was Nelson Mandela’s attorney and pretty much drafted the South African Constitution.  He is one of the main figures in shaping this new country.  This is my shot to get the support of these heavy hitters to start building our human rights network in Africa. 

Wish me luck.

Blog Post 15 - Back to Africa

I flew out of Seattle what seems like innumerable hours ago.  There are a variety of things that still need my attention at home which led me to feel not entirely enthusiastic about leaving.  Nevertheless, travel was interesting and relatively seamless minus the duration.

From Seattle to Amsterdam I sat next to a Lithuanian dentist that practices in Bellevue.  My detailed regaling of Dominique and Laima’s wedding in Vilnius was quite thrilling to her.  She kept offering me delicious sugary candy.  Turns out we both do pro bono work abroad.  She let me know that her work is in Guatemala is pretty much just pulling out teeth.  Maybe she disburses too much candy.

The layover in Amsterdam was quick and I ran into Mark Chinen and Won Kitane who are both participating and teaching in the Johannesburg program.  We hung around for a bit catching up on our various projects.

I sat next to another interesting woman on the way to Johannesburg, namely a Parisian employment law attorney.  She is on her way to safari in Botswana.  My war crimes and human rights projects were interesting to her so we filled the time with that and I was very curious to get her take on the recent elections in France and the current state of the Euro Zone.  She is a Sarkozy supporter and had relatively unkind things to say about Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain.  That invited a longer discussion about the merits and detractors of stimulus and austerity.  She told me that she is and will continue to be a right winger but if she could vote in America she would support Obama.  Curious.  We also pored over her travel books trying to find an elusive bird that she wants to find on safari but all she could recall is that it sounds like “bastard.”  We ultimately did find it, the magnificent “bustard,” the world’s largest flying bird.  To be honest, it is an ugly bastard.

When we finally landed in Johannesburg I found my people and then we cleared customs easily and found our ride.  I asked our driver what makes for Johannesburg being one of the few major world cities that is not on a body of water.  That invited a supremely compelling history of the city and the country.  Our driver, I can’t remember his name, is native and has never left the borders of his country (though he would if I wanted to sponsor him---he otherwise doesn’t want to spend his life savings on a “metal bird”).  He is 54 and gave me his fascinating take on colonialism, apartheid, the shortcomings of democracy, the evils of western powers taking advantage of currency disparity and how the people who are supposed to have been helped by inclusion are as marginalized as ever.  I hope I get to see him again.

I have only been here for a short time but it is closing in on 1 am local time.  I think I am pushing being up for over 30 hours.  Tomorrow I am slated to attend some kind of traditional BBQ.  My stupid power converter I bought in Uganda last year isn’t working here so I’m going to have a power deficit tomorrow (Sunday).  But I’m not too concerned.  As I said, this has been seamless and interesting so far and all I’ve done is travel.  I just treated myself to a shower and single serving whiskey so will now settle into my little cottage and watch some soccer until I fade (I can’t seem to find anything else on TV).