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.

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.