From Window Magazine: The Client
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.