Seattle attorney James Pirtle (’01) explains why his first human rights case was defending an accused Ugandan criminal – one of Kony’s commanders
Story by Doug McInnis
In the late summer of 2011, James Pirtle flew 8,700 miles from Seattle to the Ugandan capital of Kampala, a place he had never been and knew little about. Back in Seattle, he was a trial lawyer. But in Kampala, Pirtle became an unpaid human-rights attorney, part of a legal defense team trying to keep the state from executing Thomas Kwoyelo.
Ironically, Kwoyelo was himself accused of the most egregious human rights crimes – 53 counts of murder, kidnapping, and property destruction committed while serving as a soldier and commander in the Lord's Resistance Army, or LRA. The army terrorized northern Uganda for 20 years.
But Kwoyelo's case was not as simple as sounded. Kwoyelo says he was forced into the LRA after he was kidnapped while walking to school. He was 13 years old.
“He was nothing but a little boy trying to go to school,” says Pirtle (’01, Philosophy). “We're talking about a 13-year-old. I can’t get that out of my mind. I was 13 once. I remember walking to school.”
But the Ugandan government failed to offer Kwoyelo amnesty, though it had done so for more than 26,000 former LRA fighters, including some of higher rank . “Of the first 26,000 to apply for amnesty, he was the only one to be rejected.” Instead, he was imprisoned and tortured to obtain a confession, Pirtle says.
Pirtle learned of the case through Human Rights Watch after Ugandan attorneys put out a call for help. Intrigued, Pirtle volunteered. “I didn’t think in a million years that they would pick me. I was just a trial lawyer from Seattle.”
Pirtle wasn’t picked for his experience in human rights law. He had none. But he did offer two things Kwoyelo’s defense team needed: his legal perspective from outside the Commonwealth and his American citizenship. By having an American on the team, it would be harder for anyone to carry out reprisals against the Africans who made up the rest of the team. In return, Pirtle would gain invaluable experience in a high-profile case, experience that would help him make the transition from trial law to the human rights arena.
Next legal target: Ugandan anti-gay laws
Once he joined the team, he found yet another cause. One of his Ugandan legal partners told him of the Ugandan legislature's plan to make homosexual activity punishable by death on a second “offense.” Ninety-six of Uganda's 100 legislators said they would vote for it. Pirtle signed up for the court battle to try to block the proposal from becoming law.
Legislators have since backed off the death penalty in favor of legislation that calls for life in prison. Nonetheless, says Pirtle, “It's an affront to human dignity.” Already, gay and lesbian Ugandans live in fear, he says. "They can’t love who they want to love. They can't tell their family about their sexuality. They can’t tell their friends.”
So far, Pirtle hasn't made a dime on his human-rights work and has spent some $15,000 of his own cash for travel and lengthy stays in Uganda. But then, he didn't take the case for the money. “I'm an idealist,” he says.
Uganda may be just the place to test his values. The country gained independence from British colonial rule in 1962, but the new nation was a conglomeration of ethnic groups that could not come together to form a working government. In 1971, the dictatorial Idi Amin grabbed power and engineered the slaughter of 300,000 opponents. His successor left another 100,000 dead between 1980 and 1985.
Then most of the country settled down to stability and economic growth. But in late 1980s, warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army began its two-decade campaign against the government in northern Uganda, a campaign marked by kidnappings and unspeakable brutality.
Kidnapped boys became soldiers. To indoctrinate them, the boys were often forced to kill family and friends. Kidnapped girls became sex slaves. When LRA members wanted to intimidate opponents or exact revenge, they simply hacked off limbs.
The LRA is now in disarray. Most of Kony’s fighters have accepted amnesty and returned home to rebuild their lives. Kony and a few hundred supporters are believed to be hiding in remote jungles of central Africa. Earlier this year, the U.S. government offered a $5 million reward for his capture.
Before law school, the Navy and Philosophy
Pirtle came to human rights law in a roundabout way. After graduating from a Nevada high school, where he played defensive back on his high-school football team, he spent a year at the University of Arizona and then joined the Navy. He served on an aerial reconnaissance crew, operating radar equipment and the infrared camera used to see at night. “We flew all over Asia and Australia,” he says. “Most of the missions entailed flying around and seeing what was out there.” In effect, his unit served like a city cop on patrol. “We found arms dealers and human smugglers,” he recalls.
When his hitch was up, he enrolled in Western Washington University, majoring in Philosophy. He then earned his law degree from Seattle University's School of Law. Initially, he planned a career in environmental law. “I don't have a whole lot of aptitude for that,” he recalls.“I did have an aptitude for trial work.”
Fresh out of law school, he took the case of a friend who had gotten into a legal dispute with his former business partner. Pirtle filed a $25,000 tactical lawsuit against the former partner to try to encourage her to settle. The strategy backfired. She hired one of Seattle’s top law firm's and countersued for $250,000.
“I thought we had a strong case,” says Pirtle. “Our greatest weakness was that I didn’t have any experience. I was learning as I went along.” To Pirtle's amazement, he won a judgment at the trial court level and won again when the verdict was appealed. “If we had lost, it would have ruined him.”
Today, Pirtle’s practice includes criminal defense and personal injury cases. But he wants to shift from local trial work to the international human-rights arena and is seeking to set up a foundation to help support the work. “The people we represent obviously can't pay,” he says.
In the meantime, he’s working for free because he believes in the cause. “He’s very serious when it comes to the things he’s passionate about,” says his longtime friend Greg Reilly (’00, Economics) a lieutenant commander at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Pacific Area Headquarters.
“Maybe it comes down to the fact that there are a couple of different sides of James. One side of him is a soldier. The other is that he has a very liberal justice-oriented outlook on life. So he's a soldier for things he really believes in.”
And that commitment may have an impact that extends well beyond his work in Uganda. By taking human rights into the legal arena, Pirtle is helping to change the way human-rights cases are fought. “There’s certainly a place for trial lawyers to effect change,” says Philosophy Professor Ned Markosian, who had Pirtle as a student. “Not a lot of that is being done. The focus has been on trying to raise awareness of the issues. By bringing cases to court, he’s filling an important niche.”
So far, Kwoyelo’s legal team has won in Uganda’s Constitutional Court, which ruled he was wrongly denied amnesty and should be freed. But the government refused to let him go. Normally, Pirtle and his partners would have taken the case to Uganda’s Supreme Court. But the court is currently short members and can’t form a quorum.
So Kwoyelo’s defense team has taken the matter to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, hoping for a ruling that he should be released. While the commission has no enforcement power, Pirtle says a favorable ruling could put political pressure on Uganda to free him.
Kwoyelo is now middle-aged. Since his first year as a teenager, he has spent his life at war or in prison. If the charges against him are true, Kwoyelo has committed acts that would violate the laws of any civilized society. The only issue left is what to do with him – further imprisonment, execution, or freedom.
But Pirtle believes the case involves deeper, more complex issues. “Where does moral culpability begin?” he asks. “What happens to the psychology of a child who is kidnapped and forced to be a soldier?
“I can't answer that. But I know the consequences would be devastating,” he says. “If this had happened to any of us, what would we be like?”
Doug McInnis is a freelance journalist who has written for the New York Times, Popular Science and many university magazines. His most recent story for Window was about Eric Dinerstein (’75), chief scientist of the World Wildlife Fund.