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.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Post 2: How the hell did we get involved?

It was a leisurely evening on the beach on July 18th when my friend, Jessica Krepps, sent me a text message asking if I knew anything about war crimes. This is not the normal segue into our usual banter. I responded along the lines of, “Um, well, I studied international war crimes in Prague many years ago.” That’s how this all started.

The following day Jessica’s husband, Chad (a student at Willamette School of Law), forwarded me an email from a professor spelling out the needs of a Ugandan defense team representing the alleged war criminal, Thomas Kwoyelo. Ever the fan of interesting and adventurous things, I emailed one of the attorneys in Africa. I spelled out who I am, my (limited) experience, and enthusiasm for their project.

Side note, why enthusiastic? I am a champion of the fair administration of justice (due process, habeas corpus, etc). Some of my criminal defense friends think I am idealistic and na├»ve (that means you, Joseph Evans). Nevertheless, having learned that this is the first time a war crimes trial is being tried under the Geneva Conventions with the blessing of the International Criminal Court, how could I not be intrigued? Moreover, it was immediately apparent to me that there were glaring problems with the government’s case.

So yes, I wrote to one of the defense attorneys (there are two) and I did not expect to hear anything more about this. Why on earth would they select a trial lawyer from Seattle to get involved in a case of this magnitude?

So, I was sleeping soundly in advance of a business trip to Vancouver, B.C., when my phone alerted me to a new email about 2 A.M. Squinting through one eye at my phone I read, “Greetings from Uganda, We are happy to work with you on our team…when would you be available to travel?”

What? Wake up.

So much for sleep. Did I read that right? Read it again, James. Holy crap! I need to call my mother. Shit. It’s the middle of the night.

Still, I’m me. My understanding is that male brains do not fully develop until they are in their mid to late 20’s. One consequence of said delayed development is the actual inability to properly comprehend the consequences of hasty decisions and one’s impermanence in the world. It’s much easier to make an 18-year-old rush a machine gun nest than it is a 40-year-old. Essentially, boys are brain damaged. But I’m 36. Sure, I joined the Navy when I was 18 without thinking about it but it is excusable because I was brain damaged. By now I should have a fully developed brain. Nevertheless, I said yes before I considered the ramifications. I have a full caseload. I have cases in litigation. I have a cushy lifestyle on Alki Beach. I remember reading that the defense has been denied access to government resources. I guess we will be footing the bill for a lot of this. But wait; does this make me the lawyer version of Indiana Jones? I’m in. And, it appears, still brain damaged.

Thankfully, my law partner, Matt Hale, is as excitable and brain damaged as I am. He endorsed this project the moment I told him about it.

Wait. Do I need shots? Medicine? Yes. Crap. My passport expired in May. Crap. Do I need a visa? Yes. Crap. Do I have to have an itinerary before I can get my passport expedited? Yes. Crap.

Thankfully, being a veteran, I have had A LOT of vaccinations in my time. That said, I needed yellow fever shot (left arm rendered decrepit for three days) and malaria pills. The doctor also gave me another prescription. I asked what for? He said, “In case you get excessive anal bleeding and diarrhea, take these pills”. WTF? What qualifies as “excessive” anal bleeding?! If I have any anal bleeding I will be in an absolute panic! So I go to the pharmacy. Pharmacist says, “Oh. Are you going somewhere where you might get sick?” I say Uganda. She says, “Yup. You are going to get sick.” Ack! And what is the last thing a former professor of mine (who has done extensive work in Uganda) says to me? “James, just accept now that you are going to get sick.” Ugh.

In denial of these curses, I blew the dust off of my old international law books and dove in. My first tasking was to find international support to justify the argument that Kwoyelo should have been granted amnesty pursuant to equal protection (see previous post). This issue is now under review by the Constitutional Court.

I have been advised that I should address the question, “How can you defend someone accused of such horrible things?” I mentioned my fervent belief in the fairness of the process earlier. You can also read Matt’s post on our Facebook page. But there is more to it in this case. As I understand the facts, the accused was only 13-years-old and walking to school when he was abducted and indoctrinated into the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Think about it. Ever see Blood Diamond? If not, watch it. He was a child. A child turned soldier. The things these children are forced to do are beyond comprehension. It becomes the only life they know. Further, the ringleaders of the LRA are still at large. Why is a mid-level soldier being tried for the horrors those above him orchestrated (yes, I know about how this defense failed at Nuremberg and Tokyo)? However, when 26,000 amnesties have been granted, including people that outrank our client, something is awry. Additionally, war is an economic necessity in Africa. It’s a sad fact of life. Is it the case that the ringleaders remain at large because the government needs to keep a war on? But in international eyes, do they want to make it look like they are making someone accountable while the fighting continues? Believe me, I want the answers to these questions. The world needs to know.

Well, the ticket is purchased, I should get my passport and visa back from the Ugandan Embassy today. I have a ride from the Entebbe airport. Still working out lodging, but it looks like that is falling into place as well. Flying out on Monday. This time next week I’ll be in a Ugandan prison. Never thought similar or remotely similar words would ever escape my mouth. Maybe I am brain damaged. But I’m still wondering how the hell I got involved in this.