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 25, 2011

Post 4: Strategy, Mysteries and Nile Specials

Day 1:
Once I got the last blog post to Amber, it was about 3 AM local here. I took a shower and went face first into my pillow. Sadly, I was up three hours later with the sun. Curiously, I didn't feel poorly and I knew that I had a zillion things to get squared away. I wandered down to the front desk to see about securing a power converter (stupid mistake on my part not to remember one). Nobody knew what I was talking about, but remarkably delicious smells were wafting my way so I shrugged off my first failure of the day to follow them (like a cartoon). What I discovered cannot go without mention:

The Coffee Terrace is an open air restaurant in my hotel which hangs over Nile Avenue. The magic they do in there makes one oblivious to the motorcycle noise, pollution, and throngs of humanity down below. The first thing I discovered was a table with local fruit and juice. The fruit are small and ugly but infinitely tastier than anything I have had in years. I loaded up on pineapple, watermelon, "passion juice," and pastries. Then a lovely woman brought me some piping hot black tea. I deliberated for a millisecond about whether the water was boiled, but told myself not to be a P-word and guzzled down two cups with some cane sugar. Next I discovered potatoes, baked beans, and samosa. Samosa for breakfast! Genius!

On my list of things to do: bathe, figure out the converter problem (laptop out of battery power), figure out my phone situation, figure out my dang room safe, and meet with Francis and Caleb for a strategy meeting at 11.

By 10:45 I am clean and suited up. But I can't make my stupid hotel phone work. I finally got through to an operator and asked her to connect with with Francis's cell phone. We were connected long enough for me to hear, "Yes, James. I will meet you....beep beep beep." Alright James, complete that sentence. We are supposed to meet at the hotel at 11. I'm sure that is all he was saying.

I packed up my gear (still can't make the safe work), and went outside in my fancy black suit to wait for him. After an hour in the sun, soaked through with sweat, desperately parched, I went back inside. I managed to convince the cranky receptionist to try to call Francis for me. She capitulated with a glower, and after three attempts we reached him. "Yes James, I said we will meet at 1 at your hotel so we can have strategy while we take lunch." Sigh.

The extra hour was well spent, as at least I got the safe operational. Still no power converter. Still phone inept.

Finally 1:00 rolls around and Francis is right on time. We are back on the Coffee Terrace and it is finally time to get to work.

First, a little about Francis. John Francis Onyango is 32 and a relatively new attorney. He spent his first years after becoming a lawyer doing human rights work with NGOs and interning with the ICC. He only actually started practicing law about two years ago. He is an idealist and he takes very interesting cases. Naturally, interesting cases generally don't pay. Ahem. He is currently representing a man who sent a "gay" text to another man. The poor soul is being prosecuted for something along the lines of moral turpitude and indecency. I am going to see if I can help get some international attention for him regarding this case as well. He also represents Somalis and Kenyans accused of participating in the terror attacks after the Uganda World Cup. Remember, these cases are infrequently what they appear on the surface. .

But I am here to work on the Kwoyelo trial. Francis hands me a huge folder full of witness statements. He sheepishly admits that he has not had the time to read through them all. No problem, I've got this. Wait, one problem, Kwoyelo's "confessions" are in his native Acholi. I need these translated ASAP. I need to parse out the other witness statements to divine which were made to local authorities, which to the ICC, and which are provided by the army and law enforcement who are generally first on the scene. (Note: At the time of this writing, I have been through the witness statements. I am disinclined to publicize my findings as I don't want to telegraph trial strategy, but I have a lot to work with here).

Next, the court has indicated that it is unwilling to hear testimony regarding Kwoyelo's pretrial incarceration and torture. My job is provide briefing regarding the inseparability of the treatment of prisoners and the fair administration of justice. Moreover, Kwoyelo's "confessions" were made while he endured torture, unspeakable conditions, and near mortal bullet wounds. I need to draft a new affidavit for him to sign regarding his treatment to submit to the court. I also need to find international support on the duty of the prosecution to produce exculpatory evidence to the defense. They have refused to do so thus far. I've got this.

Caleb Alaka finally arrives. Caleb is affable, always smiling, but never 30 seconds without his phone to his ear or leaving the table to greet someone. This does not bother me, but I am having a difficult time following whatever it is he is trying to communicate to me. Caleb is a famous attorney in Uganda. He is drawn to high profile cases.

I am starting to understand why I am here.

Francis and Caleb do not work at the same firm. This case came to Francis through the scuttlebutt at prison regarding his representation of those accused of the World Cup terror attacks. Caleb represented the LRA during the Juba Peace Talks.

Francis is getting anxious because he needs to be in court at 2:00 in an unrelated case. Caleb is insisting that we "take lunch." A proposition that is fine with me, by the way. But Francis suggests we meet later for drinks and further discussion and he rushes off. Caleb tells me that he wants to work with me on some of his other international cases. To wit, he has a case where targeted sanctions were made against his client regarding his business operations and the sale of arms to the DRC. Fascinating, but lets take one trial at a time, shall we? And let's "take" this lunch that you speak of.

We are up and on our way to another delightful buffet of African goodness when he stops me and directs me to another table where there is a beautiful woman with blue hair and lots of jewelry enjoying some soup. The soup looks good. Caleb gushes, "James, this is my spouse!" She slowly raises her eyes, looks unimpressed, and returns to her soup after a brief handshake with me. Caleb is very excited. "We will take our lunch with her!"

Lunch consisted of creamy coconut soup, maize bread, fried fish, rice, potatoes, some lentil delight, and banana something or other with purple oddity sauce. Yum!

Back to the table. Caleb is off the phone and lost interest in everything besides the food (including his phone, which pleases me). I manage to get some conversation from his girl. She is an "artist." Her name is Jackie. (Note: I learn later that Jackie is a local celebrity pop star). Caleb tells her through his roll that I am an American attorney here to work on the Kwoyelo trial. Her eyes narrow at that. "Everyone in Uganda will hate you for this."


Caleb just laughs. "She does not like lawyers."

After lunch, Caleb proves useful to me. He takes me to a phone shop and hooks me up with a phone and a sim card so I can finally get connected. He hooks me up because I have a money problem. Nobody will take my business card. This is a cash only place. Problem is, I can't get cash either. Long story, but Jackie even called a banker her friend who advised he could not help because they don't have Mastercard services. This is a problem I had not anticipated. It appears I need to find a bank somewhere that can somehow get me cash. Put that on the list.

But now it is about 3:00 and I have 4 hours before we are to meet for drinks. Caleb is supposed to call me at 6. Francis is to call at 7. I plopped back onto the hotel bed with the witness statements and dove in. Though I am reading about the worst possible things, I am asleep in about 20 minutes.

My phone wakes me up at 7:30. It's Francis. He is having a drink by my pool with some journalists waiting for me. I leap up, gave my teeth a quick brush, and rush down to meet them. I am excited about the journalists, but they appear disinterested in our doings. Oh well.

Francis suggests that he and I leave the hotel and get to a proper restaurant and bar. More food? I thought this trip would make me super skinny. We wonder down the road a ways dodging speeding motorcycles. This place is outdoors and nice, but I have already forgotten the name. It's about 8:15 and Francis calls Caleb. Caleb says he'll be there in ten minutes.

Two hours later, I am four big Nile Specials to the wind and Francis is my new bestie. Caleb does not call or show, which embarrasses Francis. I don't mind, as Francis and I had an amazing conversation about our lives, our experiences, our ambitions, our new-found bestiness, and plans to form an international partnership between our firms so we can get on the ICC's list of defense teams so we can take more cases and actually get paid for them.

Francis muses that there have been few prostitutes about, which is odd since I am staying in the red light district. Funny, the hotel purports to be in the "business" district. I didn't think much of the comment, but the Nile Specials were giving me bladder angst so I excused myself to find the bathroom. I don't know where I am going, but I pass through the restaurant part and into the bar. Mystery of the missing hookers is solved. They descended upon me from every direction. Though I am normally fine with fawning, I dislike being pawed at. Particularly by so many strange paws. They were unsympathetic to my protests and Francis was not looking in my direction. Finally, I convinced one nice stout girl that I could assure them that I would be of no use to anyone unless I made it to the bathroom. She firmly grasped me by the arm and showed me the way. She assured me she would be waiting for me when I was done. Yikes. Stupid Nile Specials. How do I get out of this one?

True to her word, her stoutness was waiting for me outside the bathroom door. I was only able to pull away from her so far with meek protests like, "I am in a meeting!" "I don't have any cash anyhow and I know you don't take mastercard!" Then the others were back on me and I was encircled again. Thankfully the restaurant manager (who earlier admonished Francis for being drunk under the table by an American), marched over to assist me. The girls scattered like Orcs in the presence of the Balrog (that one is for my geeky friends). I expressed my gratitude for the rescue.

Back at the table I told Francis about the ordeal. He shrugged, "Why do you care? You are not married." Sheesh.

But, Francis is awesome. While I was being molested he had summoned a taxi and sent him to find me a power converter. Hooray!

One more drink, some fried tilapia, and we call it a night. I make it back to the room, charge my computer with my pimp ass new power converter, catch up with some people back home, and settle in with a smile and the sounds and smells of Kampala.