Intro

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, September 2, 2011

Post 9: Thomas Kwoyelo

Luzira Prizon
Days 9 and 10: Perseverance and the end of the beginning.

I slept most of the way home from the Nile (after accident and army). I was exhausted. But I think that was one of the most remarkable days of my life. Then again, every day here is remarkable.

On Wednesday morning, Annet #1 (Francis's legal assistant) and I march from my hotel to the Ministry of Prisons. Our expectation is that we get there, find someone to give me a "permission slip," and head back to Luzira Prison. I should have learned by this point not to have expectations, but Francis assures us we will not have problems.

We have a lot of problems.

The Prison Ministry is a drab, poorly constructed building. Stair wells cut off walkways such that you have to duck to get under them. The offices are too small for all of the furniture they try to squeeze in. What furniture I do sit on leaves red dust on my suit.

The first bureaucrat we meet with is a large stern woman who clearly likes this position of authority she has in the world. She riddles us with innumerable inane questions. For example, "What is to stop him from trying to smuggle contraband in?" I don't know. Maybe the five checkpoints? What's to stop anyone else from secreting in contraband?

She won't help us and she sends us to another bureaucrat. This one doesn't know why she sent us to him so he sends us to another. And on it goes. Some hours later we meet the aide de camp of the Director. Yeah, the Director is in charge of all of the prisons in Uganda. All of this because I want to meet my client? I can't tell if this is standard bureaucratic nonsense or if something sinister is afoot.

The aide de camp speaks with his boss and returns to tell us he cannot help us. But if we want to make a formal request to allow me access to Kwoyelo, we have to prepare an official letter on Francis's letterhead and all sorts of information about who I am and what I am doing here. We are then politely asked to remove ourselves from the building. Annet is rather pissed and I am getting the feeling that I will have come all this way never to meet Thomas Kwoyelo.

Nevertheless, we comply. Francis drafts a letter and I provide all of the information. Annet runs it back to the ministry, but they will not get to it until tomorrow. Nothing left to be done. I spend some time back in the hotel and later Francis wants to go back to the hooker bar. Great.

But this time the hookers don't menace me like before. Maybe I'm carrying myself differently. Mellow evening and I am back for my second to last night of sleep.

Thursday:

Breakfast then waiting. I'm suited up and ready to plead my case to the director. Annet finally calls and we are on our way back to the ministry. But Francis has informed us that he got a message saying that I "should" be approved. I'm not so sure about this.

A half hour later I am with Annet and we are back in the office of the mean lady of the inane questions. She starts in again. She wants copies of my passport. Fine. She stares at the copy of my passport for at least two minutes. Lady, there is not that much information on there and it sure as hell can't be that interesting.

She then spends an additional five minutes scowling and staring at Francis's letter. It's one friggin' page. Fine, enjoy this power you have and waste our time. I can tell by now that she has been informed that she has to approve me because she makes no phone calls.

After an eternity she instructs her assistant to draft a letter to the prison granting me entry. Finally.

I have my precious permission slip and Francis and Charles the Driver are racing over to pick me up so we can go back to Luzira Prison. We have a terrible time crunch because Francis has court at 2:30 and it is already 1:00.

Traffic, of course.

We make it to Luzira to find that the red mud road is being torn up by a tractor. Charles can't drive through. Shit. We are still a half a mile from the prison. We are out of the car in our suits and running on foot up the road in the sun and humidity. 100 meters in and Francis gets clever and flags down two booda boodas (motorcycles). Now I'm on the back of one speeding toward the prison.

[I am on the back of a speeding motorcycle racing towards a notorious prison in Uganda to meet with a man accused of war crimes. This is not what I contemplated when I considered law as a career]

The booda boodas get us to the first gate. We make it through the first four checkpoints without incident. We are finally to the main gate and Francis hands off his ID, my passport, and the note from the ministry. A guard takes it all inside. Then we wait. We wait outside in the heat for an inordinate amount of time.

A new guard comes out and says that Francis's ID is problematic (keep in mind Francis is here a few times a week). At least it isn't about me this time. He stands tall and gets lawyerly and the guard shrinks back inside.

We are both dripping sweat. I ask Francis what this is about. Last time at least we got into the prison before everything went wrong. He doesn't know. So we wait. And wait. I notice that is already 2:15. Francis, what about court? He's screwed.

Finally a different three-star emerges and summons us into the prison. This is just about as far as I made it last time. There is some brief conversation with Francis, some hard looks toward me, and then we are on the move.

This is happening.

We step through another door into a caged area in the main prison yard. The prison yard is about the size of a football field. There are countless skinny black men milling about. Luzira prison is built for 600 prisoners. It now houses about 3,000. Most are slowly walking in a large circle. Some hold hands while they walk (a sign of friendship, Francis tells me). Some men hunker down in corners trying to stay out of the sun. A few kick a soccer ball around. The field is the same red mud as everywhere else. The men are all in bright yellow shorts and shirts and wear flip flops. We have a guard escort us out of the cage and into the general population. Every one of them is looking at me. I'm not sure if I am thrilled about getting to meet Kwoyelo or if I am scared to death. Either way, palpitations. I am trying to make it appear as though I know exactly what I am doing here.

We are led over uneven ground and concrete along the field and then into a room about 50 meters down from the cage in the same building. It feels and smells like a small barn. There are a few tables and some ancient elementary school desks (you know, the ones that have one arm that turns into the writing platform and you have to slide in sideways to sit) and other beat up chairs. The walls are adorned with torn posters with public service announcements about sexually transmitted diseases and spiritual/religious words of encouragement. There is also a poster of Michael Jackson a la Bad. Seriously.

Francis and I sit at one of the tables and wait. We don't talk. Some other people show up and occupy different tables. I'm concerned that there are so many people in here. What about confidentiality? It's different here.

A taller thin prisoner walks up and speaks to Francis. I know this is not Kwoyelo. He pulls up an additional chair and introduces himself to me. His name is Alfred. Alfred will be helping us with translation today. Alfred (I learn later) is a former civil servant who is being charged with treason. He is accused of being a part of a political movement that tried to overthrow the government. Francis says these are trumped up charges and this political movement does not even exist. This is how the government takes care of political enemies that generate support and excitement from peasants. Alfred is a wonderful man but he can't afford an attorney. If convicted, he will be executed. I tell Francis we need to do something about this.

But today is about Kwoyelo. Within anxious minutes I see a diminutive man step into the room and I know immediately that this is him.

Unreal. This is Thomas Kwoyelo.

This accused war criminal looks at me shyly. I walked over to him to introduce myself. He can't be more than 5'2" His small hand disappears in mine, but he smiles. He has an exaggerated overbite and bad teeth. His forehead is narrow and he has inquisitive eyes. I am sure I want to know as much about him as he wants to know about me. We look at one another at length with all four of our hands clasped together. I wish I had words for you to share everything I am feeling right now. Our formal embrace lasts about 30 seconds.

Alfred comes over, translates my greetings, and then we all take a seat.

The substance of the conversation is privileged. What I can say is that he is thrilled that I am here. White attorneys are rare and coveted. I hope he doesn't think I can work miracles because of my skin color. Throughout the conversation he is desperately anxious for Alfred to translate what has been said. He can't wait for his turn to ask questions, particularly of me. He seems to rest easier in his chair when he gets his answers. We draft an authorization of representation between him and me and he seals it with his fingerprint as his mark.

Now I am officially Thomas Kwoyelo's attorney.

I think he and I are both relieved. I know I am. This is now real.

Traffic does not bother me on the way home. Nothing is bothering me now. I just have to tie up a few loose ends before I leave. Tomorrow (Friday) I need to make copies of all of the witness statements, hopefully pick up a few things to bring home, and then catch my flight home.

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This will likely be my last blog post until I come back to Uganda to argue the torture petition. I hope I have done a decent job of sharing with you what this experience has entailed and my fervent wish is that you have enjoyed being a part of it.

But this is really only the beginning.

James