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, June 1, 2012

Blog Post 17: Apartheid and a Founding Father

I overslept on Wednesday morning and missed my coveted breakfast.  I hoped this did not portend an ill-fated day.  Luckily, it did not.

I attended the first lecture of the day but decided to duck out at the break to go meet with Bonnie.  I went to the CALS but she was on a conference call so I settled into the waiting area with some tea and an alumni magazine.  I read an interesting article about recent fossil discoveries outside of Johannesburg that indicate a possible link in the genus homo.  There is also a museum here at Wits on “origins” which I hope to visit before I leave.

The nice lady that brought me the tea led me down the corridor to Bonnie’s office.  Bonnie is a very handsome, accomplished, and well-connected woman.  I did not have to speak for very long before she simply started drafting an email to me with a variety of people in the human rights and international criminal law communities for me to get in touch with.  What is even better, two of them are working in Uganda right now.  I am preparing letters of introduction to them now and with any luck I will have meetings set up before I even arrive in Kampala.  I gave Bonnie my gratitude and we parted ways with assurances that we would stay in touch.

I had lunch with the professors and a few other lawyers before we took a field trip to the apartheid museum in the afternoon.  The museum is fascinating.  I was in high school when this nation was being reborn but I honestly don’t remember much discussion about it.  South Africa’s long struggle with itself is so complex and tragic and hopeful that I can’t really get into it here.  I will say that this place has incredible potential but is deeply fractured and wounded by its past.  I hope they make it.

I forgot to mention that Jakes, the man who runs the B&B where I am staying, ran me down at some point on Tuesday telling me that I was going to be changing rooms.  I told him I was fine where I was but he insisted that I trust him.  He said that the staff would move all of my stuff for me while I was out for the day.  When we got back from the museum, I picked up the keys to my new room and was quite surprised when I saw it.  For where I am and what it is, they moved me into a palatial suite.  I now have a king sized bed, a parlor, European style bath (and shower, thankfully), a courtyard, etc.  Very nice.  I should have gone to Uganda first.

Anyway, I had an hour to get ready for dinner with Arthur Chaskalson so I drank a beer and took a shower.  I got all suited up and went to connect with the rest of the crowd.  I think the most common comment I received is that I clean up well.  Maybe I do.  Regardless, I was feeling respectable and confident.

Dinner was set to take place at the university.  When we arrived at the venue I was ushered to what is tantamount to the big kids’ table.  The room was large and I would guess had perhaps six tables seating about ten people each.  It was clear that this was going to be another buffet style dinner.  I sat with my colleagues and we opened a bottle of South African wine.  In relatively short order, former Chief Justice Arthur Chaskalson arrived.

Some people have such gravitas that they suck the air out of a room.  Arthur Chaskalson is such a man.  This man helped create a nation.  He is one of South Africa’s founding fathers.  Arthur is old but he has kind eyes and a nice smile.  He has gray bushy eyebrows and a full head of hair.  He walks slowly with a bit of a stoop.  The many deep wrinkles on his face betray of life full of enormous successes and failures.  I am about to break bread with this man.

We all stood as he made his way through the room to our table.  He insisted we sit so we did.  He settled in at my table three chairs down.  Conversations started up again around the room and Arthur was looking at me with a smile.  He said, “I’m not sure I know anyone at this table.”  I took the opportunity to introduce everyone at the table and then I shook his hand and introduced myself.  I said, “I am sincerely grateful to meet you, sir.  My name is James Pirtle and I am a war crimes defense and human rights lawyer.”  He seems a little surprised.

We settle back down in our chairs and he asks me, “War crimes?”

“Yes, in Uganda.  I am one of Thomas Kwoyelo’s attorneys.”

“The LRA?  They are cheeky buggers.  What is your argument?  That he didn’t do it?” he asks with a laugh.

“No, sir.  I already won the case on equal protection grounds.  The government simply refuses to release him which is why I am in Africa right now.”  He has a genuine look of shock on his face and it appeared he wanted to talk to me more but Laurel started to introduce him to the crowd.

After his formal introduction,  he gave a long and compelling speech about how precious and fragile democracy is, that it must be fought for every day, that human dignity is sacrosanct, and that each of us has the skill set and ability to be warriors in the long struggle to protect and preserve human rights and equality.  He also spoke at length about the development of the South African constitution referencing our own as a flawed but usable template.  For example, he said, we didn’t want to have a Marbury v. Madison (judicial review) so we just wrote it into our constitution.  Funny.  It was a very moving and compelling presentation.

After the speech, long lines formed to go through the buffet so decided to go out for a smoke with Mario.  Laurel ran me down, however, and told me that she and I were going to trade spots and I was going to sit next to Arthur.  She told me to march right back inside and get my plate.  I complied.     

I can’t really speak to what the buffet consisted of because it confused me.  It was really good.  I still tried everything and did not have a liver disaster repeat, thankfully.  (Update – Mario tells me the entrees were sautéed lamb with spinach and bacon wrapped chicken.  No wonder it was good).

Obviously, as we all sat and ate, Arthur was asked innumerable questions by the other guests at the table.  When there was a break in questioning, he turned to me and said, “So.  War crimes.  Do you want to talk about Guantanamo?”

Ugh.  I told him that I, along with a great many others, have great shame for some of what my country has done over the last decade.  He chuckled and said he was needling me.  The conversation turned more serious when we started to discuss the situation in Syria.  A lot of smart people were sitting at that table but no real good ideas for a solution arose.  I offered that I liked the idea of airlines voluntarily stopping service to Damascus.  That way there are effectively sanctions in place without the need to go through the Security Council where Russia and China would surely veto a resolution.  There were general murmurs of approval around the table until Arthur asked, “What about Russian, Chinese, and Iranian airlines?”  Ugh.  Now I feel dumb.

Some time later I asked him about his career and whether he had greater satisfaction as a jurist or as a trial lawyer.  Since he was South Africa’s first Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court during a time that a new nation was being born, that was his clear shining achievement in his career.  We also talked about dealing with losing cases we care deeply about.  He lost Mandela’s case and Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment.  Though we have technically won Kwoyelo’s case, there are still very uncomfortable odds that he will wind up in the ground.  Arthur just said, “Approach it like a doctor.  A doctor does his best but sometimes the patient dies.  It happens.  You will have to move on.”

Finally I got around to asking about people he might put me in touch with in the human rights community.  He asked me if I had met Bonnie yet.  Check.

James and Arthur Chaskalson
After dessert I realized that the law students were going to start lining up to get their photo taken with Arthur.  I took the opportunity to bring Mario over so that he could meet Arthur before things got chaotic and the evening ended.  I’m glad I did.  Mario is doing an internship at The Hague in the fall and they had an opportunity to chat for a few minutes.  Afterward, his glee was palpable.

When all of the photos were taken I thanked Arthur and went over to say goodnight to the dean.  We exchanged information and agreed to stay in touch regarding a future fellowship.

So that is it.  I have accomplished precisely what I set out to do in South Africa.  More so, really.  I have a few more days here to basically chill, go on safari, etc., before I go to Uganda and get back to work.  The next time I write I think I will discuss what has been happening over the last few weeks in Uganda.  These are exciting and troubling times.

It also happens to be precisely the right time for me to be here.