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.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Post 7: Luzira Prison and Another Setback

Days 5 and 6. Leisure and Angst

Yesterday (Sunday) was my day off. But another storm rolled in so I found myself pinned down. Good Morning Uganda is pretty awesome. They took a break to play a Milli Vanilli video.

I did get a chance to meet Andrew, Matt's friend Sam's brother. I brought a photo album from Sam for their mother. Andrew is a lovely man and said that he was available to help us in any way we need him. I have yet to meet anyone (besides Jackie and the Human Rights Commission--dummies) that has not been enthusiastic about helping with what we are doing.

Otherwise, we got the party going in the evening at the terrace where I taught the purse-lipped crowd how to do whiskey shots while rocking out to an African cover band.


I flew half way around the world for this.

Today we are to go to Luzira prison so I can meet Thomas Kwoyelo. He has been an abstraction but it is time to make it real. There is so much information that I need. I have so many questions to ask. I've filled a notepad with everything I can think to ask to advance the case. It's hard to wait. I wonder what the prison is like. I can't wait to look into his eyes. I wonder what is there. The curiousity is killing me.

Breakfast? It's hard to eat. Room? Pace. Suit? You are going to prison, dummy, and you look fine. Watch television and wait. I could use some Mili Vanili.

Francis is here at 11. Cool as cool can be (see photo). Asshole. We work on the petition, passing the laptop back and forth. It's solid. We just need to fill in the blanks. Lots of blanks.

Caleb is not coming. Fine. We are picking up Nicholas on the way.

Here we go.

I would prefer Seattle traffic to Kampala's. At least there one would not expect someone to use your bumper to leverage his motorcyclye to get a better position. Roads are closed. We have to backtrack. Nicholas is hating on Charles. I just want to get there.

Charles (the driver--soon to become Charles MY Driver), is carting us to Luzira Prison. I don't know what to expect.

The street (if you can call it that) is lined with shacks selling wares and services. Bananas, sunglasses, haircuts, insurance (really?), and automotive services.

Nicholas is talking about his marital aspirations. He wants to be sure that whomever falls for him will love him for who he is and not for his vocation. I espouse the merits of being single. Francis has a hard time disagreeing with me even though he is married. He calls it falling into the ditch. I'm sure that is because my arguments are compelling.

Fun fact about Nicholas: His father was a powerful tribal member and begat 54 children.

Sad fact abut Nicholas: He lost a majority of his siblings to AIDS.

Nicholas then proffers a thought that I have not considered. We are driving in the car and I only catch every third word or so from these guys anyway and I have difficult time understanding them under ideal hearing conditions. That and they bounce back and forth between languages. But I caught something about murder and I ask Nicholas to repeat himself. Nicholas is concerned that if we push the government too hard (lift its skirt too high), maybe Kwoyelo has an "accident" in prison. Shit. No. I look at Francis and he is stone-faced staring out the window. He simply mutters, "We must do our jobs." The rest of the drive to the prison is silent.

Luzira Prison, to my surprise, occupies a beautiful piece of land outside of Kampala looking over Lake Vicoria. We negotiate our way up the commonplace red mud road. First checkpoint: We are a bunch of suits (and Charles the Driver). Move along. Next stop, don't you dare drive another inch. Okay, so we park. We walk up to the next checkpoint. Here we surrender all of our belongings. Bye bye, every bit of identifying information I have. Francis only wants my WSBA (Washington State Bar Association) license. Fine. But really?

Up to the final gate. Through the metal detector. It goes off furiously when I walk through. Right, I forgot I am wearing my new fancy birthday watch (thanks again, Jack and Klaire). The guards don't seem to give it much thought. Fine then. We are through a small thick metal door and inside the prison. There are a few minimum security prisoners and about fifteen guards at this point. The prisoners wear bright yellow. The guards are in khakis. The walls are dirty and it smells bad.

A guard with three stars adorning each shoulder emerges and leads us into a small room. This place reminds me of SERE school.

He is talking to Francis. Francis looks concerned. I hear the guard use the words "Pirtle"and "American." Francis switches to English. "He is a member of this team. He must meet with his client." The guard closes his eyes, tucks his chin, and does something that resembles jazz hands and leaves the room.

Nicholas says, "He will not let you see Kwoyelo."

What?! Why? Francis says, "He does not have a good reason. He is scared because you are an American." What am I going to do? Bust Kwoyelo out and make a break for it? I doubt we'd stand out.

The guard comes back and says he has spoken with his superiors. I am apparently a "diplomat" so I must get specific papers. Francis is exasperated. "He is NOT a diplomat. He is an ATTORNEY here to meet with his client!" The guard never makes eye contact with me but he is now losing his patience. "He will not get in. He will wait in a cell and you will go see Kwoyelo."

I will wait in a what? Fuck that. I quickly go over some of the questions I want Francis to ask Kwoyelo and beat a hasty retreat out of the prison. I am so upset and disappointed. I came across the world to meet this man and there was but one wall left between us. I reclaim my possessions and go to find Charles.

I spent the next hour outside grumbling and smoking cigarettes with Charles. He told me he was not surprised that they did not let me in. We spoke at length about dictators, corruption, his own struggles, and the realities of life in this part of the world. Charles offers to be my driver whenever I need one in Kampala. This makes me happy.

Francis and Nicholas finally emerge. They debrief me. It's good, but I needed to hear this with my own ears. They do say that Kwoyelo is very excited that I am here and that maybe my presence will bring the attention to his case that it deserves. Not if they keep thwarting me.

It is a very long drive back into town. Francis assures me that we will get this straight at the ministry and I will get to interview Kwoyelo at least once before I leave. They leave me at the hotel and Francis goes to his office to type up the torture petition. We don't know yet if we will be able to go to the prison ministry on Tuesday or not. It depends on what the moon decides to do (muslim holiday Eid). Turns out the moon did whatever it was supposed to do and Tuesday is a holiday. No offices are open.

Francis calls after the petition is finished. He is coming with his legal assistant to drink a beer with me. We go to a hole in the wall bar and I get to enjoy some delicious Nile Specials. Francis has determined that since today was such a disppointment and in light of the holiday, we will go to the headwaters of the nile (consolation prize?) at Jinja for some rest and relaxation on Tuesday.

Works for me.