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, June 13, 2012

Blog Post 21: War Crimes and Hate Crimes - This Chapter Ends

The last weekend is pretty mellow as we are now waiting until Monday to see if I can get into Luzira Prison to see Kwoyelo.  I decided to take the down time to get some shopping and relaxing in.  A lot of the streets in my neighborhood were blocked off by army types as Musevini was attending the grand opening of a new bank.  Thus, I took a circuitous route to the crafts market.  Even though dealing with the hard sale ladies at the market can be a bit of a hassle, they are incorrigible flirts so I always have fun when I go there.  I received a marriage proposition and one for my brother (I guess because the first lady got dibs on me).

On the way back to the hotel I decided I would try to make nice with the police.  I walked up to a group of them, gave them my best smile, introduced myself, and started asking their names.  A group of three young ones were amenable so in short order we were chuckling and laughing and asking questions of one another.  One dour older cop was off to the side eyeballing us in an angry fashion.  I suggested the young ones and I get a photo together.  Their disposition changed and said that they could not.  It was against regulations.  Then one whispered, “If you pay that man (the dour skulky one), maybe he will let you have a photo with us.”

So I asked him, “May I take a photo with these people?”


“Come on, how many shillings?”

“20,000 ($8.00).”

“20,000?!  An outrage!  Highway robbery!  1,000.”


Young cop, “He will let you do it for 10,000.”

“Fine.  10,000.”

I pulled out my camera.  He pulled out his machine gun.  “Go A-Way!”

I complied.  I don’t have any photos with the police.

I took myself out for pizza Sunday night and went to bed at a reasonable hour anticipating Monday would be busy.  Monday was very busy.

Luzira Prison
Francis and I met for breakfast and then went to his office to wait on word from the prison ministry regarding my permission slip.  Annet kept calling over there and hassling them until it finally got done.  They sent a messenger over to pick it up for me.

Francis and Annet had a conversation and Francis told me to give Kwoyelo his greetings.  “Um, you aren’t coming with me?”  “No, Annet will drop you off at prison.”

I’m going to go to Luzira Prison by myself??  Gulp.  Did I remember to wear my big boy lawyer pants?

At the last minute Francis changes his mind and decides he wants to come along after all (thank the mighty heavens).  We got a taxi to take us out there but unfortunately the windows wouldn’t roll down so it was an extra roasty sweaty drive to Luzira.

Once there, however, it was surprisingly easy passing through the checkpoints and getting into the prison.  We just walked in like we owned the place.  Not a single guard gave us any hassle.  Some greeted Francis like a celebrity.  “Counselor!  Welcome back!  Long time!  We have missed you!   And who is this?”

In fact, this time we did not have to traverse the yard and the general population for our meeting. The Officer in Charge said that we could use his office.  Francis tells me he doesn’t have much he wants to discuss with Kwoyelo so the time is mine with him to discuss whatever I want.  He reminds me that Kwoyelo is chatty by nature and also very frustrated so the conversation could be long.  Like I wrote before, I wasn’t sure what I was going to say to him.

Then Kwoyelo was there.  I recognized his small frame immediately and I stood up to go greet him in much the same fashion as last time.  This time he doesn’t look at me shyly, but rather with child-like delight.  He actually speaks to me in a little bit in English, “I am happy you are here!  Welcome!  Yes, please!  I am happy!  Welcome welcome! Yes, please!”

We have a new translator which also comes with some good news!  Alfred has been freed (see Post 9).  It appears the state could not present enough evidence for the trial judge to even allow formal proceedings to commence.  You know, maybe there is hope.

The four of us huddle together and spoke for about an hour.  Again, I can’t discuss the contents.  I will share this, however:  At one point Kwoyelo wanted the translator to tell me that he knows that Jesus and the Holy Spirit have chosen me and sent me to protect him.  He knows that when white people and black people work together that it is a sign of God’s divine influence.

What do I say to that?  I think I said, “I am here with you, whether I am in Africa or America, you are not forgotten.  I will fight for you.  I cannot promise you how this will end, but I do promise to be with you at the end no matter what.”  He teared up and clasped my hands.

I parted ways with Kwoyelo and Luzira Prison with mixed emotions.  But I still feel confident.  I think we can win this thing.  Not like we haven’t already, but I mean WIN IT win it.

Francis and I left the prison to go meet with Nicholas whom I’ve not had a chance to see yet this trip.  He’s been in Rwanda working on the Ingabire political trial

I’m excited after this meeting.  Nicholas has proposed that we petition the Supreme Court (in an unprecedented move) to get them to grant bail to Kwoyelo pending arguments which could well be a year or two away.  I am thinking, we get bail, get Kwoyelo home, the government loses interest as they have Acellam in custody, and Kwoyelo quietly slips into the shadows not to be thought of again.  We need that bail first.  The government has tried to allege that Kwoyelo has had contact with LRA financiers and if released he will just go back onto the field.  Two judges have already called this argument bullshit.  Which it is.

But that reminds me of something interesting:  Kwoyelo said that security personnel have tried to contact him at prison.  He said he has thus far refused to meet with them because he is scared.  Hell, I would be, too.  Of course I am outraged at this attempted ex parte government contact with my client.  Francis is uncertain as to whether this is real or not.  He just told Kwoyelo that if anyone says they want to meet with him he has to have counsel present.  Besides being outraged, I’m wondering what the hell they would want.  We’ll keep an eye on this.

Next stop, Sexual Minorities Uganda (SMUG).  This is a LGBT activist group/network.  Their CEO, whom I’m about to meet, has received a Kennedy Award for his human rights work and has also been acknowledged by Andrew Cuomo amongst other accolades.  SMUG is also the group that brought the suit against American evangelist Scott Lively.

Back in the hot taxi it is so roasty that I can’t keep my eyes open.  When I woke we were deep into the suburbs of Kampala.  Sort of the middle of nowhere.  I’m curious.

Turns out that SMUG totally has a secret hideout!  This is awesome!  We had to squeeze through a tiny metal gate guarded by a (not terribly formidable) little guy. But inside their modest compound is all sorts of gay pride decorations and posters. They are a serious lot.  There are five of them in the hideout and they all look very focused.  We are summoned into another chamber, their war room, I suppose, and Francis tells me to simply talk to them about our plans.  So I do.  I explained that we are developing this human rights practice and want to collaborate with them in any way we can.  I also tell them that their super-secret hideout is extra pimpy and that I want one for my firm.  Not many laughs.

(Later Francis tells me that their super-secret hideout is a poorly kept secret from the police.  There are many moles/informants that readily rat out gay activists.  Francis says it is only a matter of time before they all get rounded up in a raid.)

Their moods may be dark because the CEO turns to Francis and starts to tell him about one of theirs that has been kidnapped and tortured repeatedly and has had the demand placed on him that he renounce homosexuality.  Kidnapped and tortured by whom, we don’t know, but it is another case.  And a hate crime.  Not that it really matters here.  Francis is on it.

A photo of Kristen from her blog
Then it’s back to Francis’s office for yet another meeting with a human rights guy.  The day is wearing on and I am still hoping to meet with my sister Amber’s friend, Kristen Pettet, who is here as a health educator in rural Uganda.  I did get to see here after I made some copies of pleadings.  We met at a café in Garden City and each ordered a milk shake.  She is a very impressive young woman and incidentally has a blog of her own which I will now plug:

Back to the hotel and then I shower, pack, then meet with Francis and Annet for one last drink before I go.  I think the drink lasted a little too long because, unbeknownst to me, we were actually super late getting me to the airport.  Annet was pulling me out of the car and grabbing my bags and running for the departure gate.  What’s the rush, I wonder? 

Well, the woman at the departure gate says I am too late.  I can’t get on.  Annet’s dark face turns crimson and she booms, “YOU WILL LET HIM PASS!” and she shoved my bags at the lady.  Jeez.  I was just thinking, “Well, this sucks.  I guess I’ll blog about it.”  But the woman cowered in fear and next thing you know I’m through the gate, security, and customs.  Then I’m airborne.  Annet is a bad ass.  That or she really wanted to get rid of me.

I’m writing this in Amsterdam waiting on my final flight home.  Nothing is really over but this is the conclusion of this particular adventure.  A lot of good work has been done.  But now I am ready to be home.

I pass through passport control one last time before I catch my flight home.  The agent asks me what I was doing in Africa.


“What kind of business?”

“I’m an attorney.”

“What kind?  Corporate?”

“War Crimes.”

“Do you work for the ICC?”

“No, I’m in private practice.  I do war crimes defense.”

“Defense? What, do you represent Joseph Kony or something?”

I can’t tell if this is snarky.  I just smile at him, wink, and say:

“Not yet.”