Seeking justice

Graduate fights for the rights of accused war criminal

James Pirtle '05 is a Seattle trial lawyer whose practice includes criminal defense. Seemingly out of nowhere, his biggest defense case ever involves a notorious accused war criminal in a landmark international case in Africa.

Pirtle traveled to Uganda for the first time in August to meet with his co-counsel and meet his client, Thomas Kwoyelo, a former combatant in the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). He was scheduled to return in mid-December to fight Kwoyelo's release, which was ordered by one court but delayed by another.

Thomas Kwoyelo

Thomas Kwoyelo. Photo by Edward Echwalu.

A former child soldier in Africa's longest war, Kwoyelo is accused of numerous war crimes, including murder, willful killing, hostage taking, and property destruction.

"But there is so much more to this case than meets the eye," Pirtle says. "A lot of people are angry at my client, and I understand that.  He is accused of the worst possible things. But when I look into his eyes, I see a scared kid. He was never given a choice. He is scared and just wants to go home."

In August, Pirtle met Ugandan lawyers, John Francis Onyango and Caleb Alaka, and helped prepare for trial, think through possible strategies for their client and draft pleadings regarding torture allegations against the state. He was summoned again to argue for the release that was ordered by the Constitutional Court and surprisingly denied by the new International Crimes Division. Pirtle and his team are seeking judicial review at the high court to force the Director of Public Prosecution and the International Crimes Division (ICD) to set their client free.

Pursuant to Pirtle and his team's briefing and oral arguments, the Constitutional Court ruled in September that Kwoyelo was denied equal protection under the Amnesty Act of 2000 (for which he applied while imprisoned) and ordered the International Crimes Division to halt the trial and to enter orders for his release. The Constitutional Court ordered that Kwoyelo be granted amnesty like any other combatant that has renounced rebellion. The ICD disregarded the Constitutional Court's ruling and declared that Kwoyelo should remain in prison.

"We are collectively furious that the ICD blatantly ignored the directive from the Constitutional Court to release Kwoyelo," Pirtle said. "They are shameless in so directly undermining the integrity of the judicial system. Kwoyelo's mother traveled a great distance to bring her son home for the first time in two decades only to see him whisked back to prison."

Pirtle studied international war crimes and bioethics in Ireland and the Czech Republic while he was in law school. It was not until receiving a random text message from a friend asking, "Do you know anything about war crimes?" that he pursued international law. A self-proclaimed idealist, Pirtle was intrigued by the case and Kwoyelo's story. He fired off an email to the contact in Africa and was asked the next day to join the defense team.

"It's certainly the most fulfilling and exciting thing I've done as an attorney," said Pirtle, who is a founding partner at The Sentinel Law Group, PLLC in Seattle. 

James Pirtle '05 and his Ugandan co-counsel, Francis Onyango, enjoy a break from the case on the Nile.

Kwoyelo is the first person to be tried by Uganda's ICD, a division of Uganda's High Court. Initially known as the War Crimes Division, it was set up in 2009 by the Ugandan government after the Juba Peace talks between the Ugandan government and the LRA failed. This is the first time a case is being tried under the Geneva Conventions Act in the new court. Nonetheless, the court has repeatedly stated, rather firmly, that this is a Ugandan case being tried under Ugandan law. Ugandan law allows for the death penalty. The Geneva Convention does not.

As an American lawyer and a military veteran, Pirtle said part of the reason he was selected was to provide a "human shield" to protect Kwoyelo and the defense team. He was granted a temporary license to practice in Uganda but went through many hoops just to get inside Luzira Prison to meet Kwoyelo. Pirtle says he'll never forget it.  

On his blog, he describes finally meeting his client:

"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."

In March 2009, while in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kwoyelo was shot through the abdomen and taken into custody following fighting between the Ugandan army and LRA combatants. He was taken to Uganda for medical treatment for bullet wounds.

"He was subsequently abducted from the hospital by military intelligence before he had healed, tortured for three months, and then held in prison for more than a year without counsel," Pirtle said. "Even for accused war criminals, the process has to be fair."

Pirtle says he believes the LRA's tradition of training children to kill has damaged many, including his client. He believes Kwoyelo can move on to live a peaceful life in his village.

"I'm not a psychologist, and I can't imagine what happens to the mind of a child when he is abducted and indoctrinated into a rebel group," he said. "He is my age but came across as the 13-year-old abductee just hoping I could keep him from getting hurt. The Acholi (his tribe) have compelling reconciliation rituals that will allow him to make peace and rejoin his people."

Pirtle so far has financed his travel and associated costs without compensation. He hopes to start a non-profit organization, as he has been asked to take cases representing homosexuals from prosecution and villagers displaced by oil and mineral interests in addition to the lineup of LRA members slated for trial.

"It's not easy, but it's important," he said. "If equal protection under the law fails anywhere, it fails everywhere."

Winter 2011-12