Little Kony: Thomas Kwoyelo

A Seattle attorney's quest to free a murderous Ugandan warlord's commander.

It's not that James Pirtle wasn't wary about taking the case of Thomas Kwoyelo. There were omens, starting with the lightning that struck his plane on takeoff from Amsterdam.

When a friend dropped him off at Sea-Tac International Airport, he had already been asking himself, "What am I doing? How many people has he killed? And now I'm putting my life on the line?"

And after Pirtle arrived in Africa, stepping into the summer heat and an air of revenge, there was that beautiful woman with blue hair in a Kampala restaurant who eyed him carefully after an introduction and said, "Everyone in Uganda will hate you for this." Then came that dangerous afternoon when Pirtle, dressed in a suit and tie, clung to his briefcase on the back of a motorcycle speeding over a red-mud road to notorious, overcrowded Luzira Prison, above scenic Lake Victoria.

Pirtle dismounted, brushed himself off, and, once cleared through the gate, stepped into the barren yard where several hundred African inmates in yellow shirts and shorts were walking in circles for exercise. All of them, it seemed, had stopped to size up the one and only white man in the yard, who was sweating heavily.

It wasn't until he entered a prison antechamber that Pirtle, a Seattle attorney all of six years, met his new client, and was swept by a wave of relief. He eagerly shook the hand of Thomas Kwoyelo, the first person to be tried by Uganda's International Crimes Division court under the 1964 Geneva Conventions Act for willful killing, taking hostages, and extensive destruction of property.

At last, James Pirtle had his first felony case.

When he entered Seattle University School of Law a decade ago after a stint in the Navy, Pirtle fantasized about becoming an environmental crusader, hauling oil-company executives into court and suing them for raping Mother Nature. After passing the bar in 2006 and facing a menacing pile of student-loan bills, however, he accepted reality and wound up in misdemeanor court defending domestic-violence offenders and drunk drivers.

But on that September afternoon last year, as he looked into the face of a man accused of mass murder and mayhem—a commander in the bloody army of child-abductor and sex-slaver Joseph Kony—Pirtle's crusading instincts swelled anew.

Kwoyelo was 39, three years older than Pirtle. Yet to Pirtle, Kwoyelo looked like the child he'd been when he was abducted on his way to school in the northern Ugandan town of Pabo in 1985. Barely 5 feet 2 inches tall, Kwoyelo, though his eyes seemed dead, appeared shy, reluctant to let go of Pirtle's hand.

Since his kidnapping by Kony's men at age 13, Kwoyelo had grown into a murderer, but not necessarily a man, Pirtle thought. The two of them stood there nodding—Kwoyelo spoke Acholi, a regional language in a nation that favors Swahili and English. An interpreter was handy, but for the moment Pirtle and the accused war criminal just stared at each other in silence, their four hands clasped under the African sun.

"He is himself a victim," Pirtle would later recall thinking at the time. "And now they want to punish him for it."

Many Ugandans support that view, according to a report by the Justice and Reconciliation Project, which works for peace in Africa. Speaking to residents in Pabo, where Kwoyelo's mother lives and hopes for his return, project interviewers found agreement that "Kwoyelo should return home, reintegrate into the community, and reconcile with his victims and the community in general." But "forgiveness takes time," the report found, and welcoming home a war criminal—even one abducted into the service of atrocities—will be difficult for a scarred community, said one local official, since "It has been impossible for people to think of Kwoyelo as a human being."

A lack of sympathy for Kwoyelo is understandable: Captured three years ago by the Ugandan military operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he is accused of ordering or carrying out 53 crimes, including the murders and kidnapping of civilians between 1992 and 2005—accusations that he has denied but which are difficult to disprove. Details of the atrocities—including dozens of killings, most by repeated clubbing, backed by eyewitness reports—took two hours to read aloud at a court hearing. For that, he faces the possibility of either life in prison or the death penalty.

The Ugandan Department of Public Prosecutions claims Kwoyelo held the rank of colonel in the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), into whose movement an estimated 25,000 African children, according to United Nations estimates, have been abducted—the boys as warriors, the girls as sex slaves. He is said to have been fourth in command under Kony, the madman who claims to speak directly with God and hoped to forcibly turn Uganda into a theocracy guided by the Ten Commandments.

The warlord's bloody campaign left an estimated 30,000 dead and displaced two million people over a quarter-century. His guerrilla troops wiped out villages and engaged the Ugandan Army throughout the country and into the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.

It is a part of the world constantly beset by civil war and uncivil massacres, which mostly go unnoticed by Americans until such atrocities—Darfur, "The Lost Boys," Rwanda—become the popular cause of rights groups or movie stars. Having broken from Sudan last year, South Sudan is in turmoil, with 3,000 members of two tribes dying in one recent week of battle. Rioting and fighting in Sudan have also led to a new flow of Lost Boys, and Girls, across the Nuba Mountains into enormous South Sudan refugee camps. "We don't talk about our parents anymore," a young girl told The New York Times this month. "Even if we go back, we won't find anybody."

The civil-war rampage of two decades has subsided in Uganda, though Kony—his notoriety recently exploding with the release of a controversial viral video, "Kony 2012," seen by a record 100 million YouTube viewers in a week—remains at large and is thought to be hiding in a remote jungle region of the Central African Republic.

Pirtle and his Ugandan co-counsels at one point thought they had won Kwoyelo's freedom through amnesty. Not long after the day Pirtle met Kwoyelo in the prison yard, the country's Constitutional Court halted the ongoing prosecution, concluding that Kwoyelo deserved the amnesty that the country had extended to other LRA rebels under a national Amnesty Act. More than 26,000 members of armed groups—about 13,000 of them LRA rebels—have been given freedom under the blanket pardon since it was approved in 2000 to encourage rebels to lay down their arms and come out of the bush.

But though Kwoyelo's war-crimes trial in Gulu, Northern Uganda, was suspended last year, the amnesty ruling has been challenged by prosecutors and Kwoyelo remains in prison. He petitioned another court that also ruled in his favor, but the Department of Public Prosecutions still refused to grant his release.

Patrick Wegner, a legal scholar who has followed the case, worries that the government is attempting to make an example of Kwoyelo. As he blogged in February, "The fact that Kwoyelo is still in jail despite numerous court rulings seems to be an indicator that [prosecutors were] trying to make a political point by indicting Kwoyelo."

Penny Mbabazi Atuhaire, of Africa's Foundation for Human Rights Initiative, says Kwoyelo should not have to shoulder the entire blame for what became of him. "The government had a duty to protect Kwoyelo as a child from the LRA abduction and provide him an atmosphere that other Uganda children enjoy when growing up," she wrote in a May opinion piece for the Acholi Times of Northern Uganda. "Given that Kwoyelo was abducted at the age 13 when going to school, there is no doubt that it's the LRA system that shaped him into the 'criminal' he is today. And it is only unfortunate that the government is turning against him by using its failure to offer him protection when he was a child and instead choose to prosecute him for crimes he would not have otherwise committed if government had played its role."

Now a new appeal is in the works, and Pirtle visited his client a few weeks ago to confer again. He could return to Africa any day, with Kwoyelo's fate now resting on a forthcoming ruling from Uganda's Supreme Court. Kwoyelo could ultimately return to Pabo almost three decades after his abduction, says Pirtle. Or he could go back to trial for mass murder.

"And we don't want to go to trial," says Pirtle, over coffee at a Starbucks near his home in West Seattle. "We'll lose."

 

Pirtle currently spends most of his time going over the war-crimes case, though he has developed a successful practice, the Sentinel Law Group, specializing in personal injury, consumer protection, and criminal defense. He figures he's spent $50,000 of his own money to defend an accused war criminal whose freedom he thinks is warranted, and is prepared to spend more when word comes from Africa and he returns.

The "Kony 2012" video raised awareness of the Lord's Resistance Army and, indirectly, Kwoyelo's case, says Pirtle, who thought the production by the San Diego-based charity Invisible Children was inspiring and heartbreaking. But he joins other critics who felt the film wrongly suggested that Kony was still rampaging through Uganda, which he'd left five years earlier, and that the charity had misaligned itself with the Ugandan Army in its search for the warlord.

"The video was about two decades late," Pirtle says, allowing that child-soldiering still plagues Africa. "What they forget is that the Ugandan Army is as culpable for atrocities and human-rights violations as the LRA. But now they are the good guys?"

Kony, most wanted on the list of war criminals sought by the International Criminal Court at The Hague, is currently being pursued in the forests of Central Africa by a multinational African Union force of 5,000 with support from 100 U.S. Special Forces soldiers. His crimes may pale in comparison to those of Uganda's all-time most ruthless murderer, Idi Amin, president from 1971–79, whose regime is thought to be responsible for more than 100,000 deaths. But the manhunt for Kony has the blessings of President Barack Obama and other world leaders, along with high-profile U.S. entertainers such as Oprah Winfrey, whose foundation donated $2 million to Invisible Children, and actor George Clooney, who praised the video exposure of Kony, explaining, "I'd like indicted war criminals to enjoy the same level of celebrity as me."

The Daily Telegraph of London reports that Kony is thought to have up to 500 troops, about half of them children or former child soldiers. The United Nations says that despite the world's growing knowledge of Kony's horrors, he has relentlessly continued his campaign of murder and abduction, having kidnapped more than 600 child soldiers over the past two years.

But, as Pirtle notes, "Kony 2012," while rightly indicting the warlord, also makes a case on behalf of his client. The children abducted from village streets, taught to beat and mutilate their fellow Ugandans and kill their parents? "That was Thomas," Pirtle says.

Three former high-ranking LRA commanders have received amnesty in recent years, while several other LRA members who applied for amnesty were not prosecuted after they joined the Ugandan Army to fight the LRA. In May, Caesar Acellam, thought to be the third-ranking LRA officer in charge under Kony, was taken into custody. Unlike the lower-ranking Kwoyelo, Acellam was a volunteer for the Kony forces, yet there was immediate talk that he would be granted amnesty under the blanket pardon of the law. (He's not likely to get it, however, observers say.) Even Kony at one point in 2006 was offered amnesty by the Ugandan government in the hope of facilitating peace talks. But he rejected it, saying it would have no effect on his case as an international criminal sought by The Hague.

There is a new hitch, however: The decade-old amnesty program ended last month in Uganda. It was allowed to expire over concerns that the law was no longer relevant—most combatants have returned to their homes—and may conflict with the constitution. But Pirtle thinks Kwoyelo can prevail, since their legal challenge was initiated before the law had sunset.

"Amnesty is generally frowned upon in international law," says Pirtle, "because there's no accountability to it. But it's the right thing. Thomas is a victim. Boys became killers, girls became sex slaves. That's all they knew, that's who they were. What he and others were indoctrinated to do as children, as awful as it was, is forgivable."

Paul Ronan, a co-founder of Resolve, a U.S. activist group that has closely monitored Kwoyelo's prosecution, says the Ugandans he's spoken with are either indifferent to or displeased with the government's decision to try Kwoyelo. As he wrote on his organization's website, "Many point out that former LRA commanders, who held higher ranks (and even once commanded Kwoyelo) and are responsible for worse crimes, have been given amnesty. They think Kwoyelo has been unfairly singled out because he escaped [from Kony's army] more recently and the Ugandan government needed a commander not yet given amnesty to put on trial in order to show the world that its new International Crimes Division is being put to use."

Pirtle, a 36-year-old bachelor who studied war crimes in the Czech Republic, says a friend contacted him to ask if he was interested in helping Kwoyelo's legal team. The case piqued his interest, he says—certainly more than another drunk-driving case in municipal court. Born in Arizona and raised in Nevada, Pirtle joined the Navy in 1994 and became an aviator on P-3 Orion surveillance aircraft flying out of the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. He graduated from Western Washington University, then Seattle University, eagerly looking for that first case. Alas, it wasn't a suit to bring Exxon to its knees in the world court; it had to do with a buddy whose girlfriend split and took all the good stuff with her.

"I said, 'Hell, I'm a lawyer! Maybe we can sue her!' " Pirtle recalls, laughing. And they did—only to discover the girlfriend had hired a big law firm and filed a counterclaim against his client. " 'Oh, crap,' I thought, 'I'm not getting paid,' " Pirtle says. To his surprise, he won.

He was a bit more surprised when, after he sent the Ugandan attorneys an e-mail last July expressing an interest in joining their team, he got a reply. It was 2 a.m. and his cellphone began beeping, indicating a message had arrived. He could hardly believe his bleary eyes. "Greetings from Uganda," the message read. "We are happy to work with you on our team . . . when would you be available to travel?"

Within a few weeks, Pirtle had his passport, visa, and plane ticket to Uganda, along with a scheduled ride from Entebbe International Airport. He also began to write about his journey on the Sentinel Law blog (warcrimessentinellaw.blogspot.com), a bit dazed by the whiplash turn in his legal career.

"This time next week I'll be in a Ugandan prison," he wrote. "But I'm still wondering how the hell I got involved in this."

 

Pirtle's plane set down at Entebbe on August 24, delayed two hours in Rwanda on the flight from Amsterdam after a lightning strike, which turned out to have done no damage except to passenger psyches. The next afternoon Pirtle met his one of his co-counsels at a restaurant in downtown Kampala with a view of the lush, hilly capital. Francis Onyango, 32, had been in practice only a few years and was currently representing a man who sent a "gay" text to another man. There is open discrimination against gays and lesbians in Uganda, where newspapers have published the names and faces of 100 homosexuals—one with a banner next to the pictures stating "Hang Them"—and the country's parliament has considered (but so far not passed) the death penalty for HIV-positive men who have sex with other men.

Onyango also represented Somalis and Kenyans accused of participating in the July 2010 terrorist bombings in Kampala during the World Cup, he told Pirtle. (Seventy-nine people were killed and 70 injured, including several Americans, at public screenings of the Cup final.) Onyango needed the Seattle attorney's help because he had two children at home and was overwhelmed by work.

He gave Pirtle a folder full of witness statements and said he hadn't had time to read them all. It was going to take Pirtle time, too: Statements from Kwoyelo in the folder were in his native language, Acholi, and needed to be translated.

Kwoyelo, his lawyers believed, had been tortured after his arrest, but the court was unwilling to hear such testimony. It would be Pirtle's assignment to persuade them to. He would have to help draw up a brief on how prisoner mistreatment affects the fairness of justice, showing that Kwoyelo's "confessions" were made while he endured torture, unspeakable conditions, and near-mortal bullet wounds suffered when he was captured.

Caleb Alaka, another co-counsel, then arrived. He had represented the LRA during the peace talks at Juba from 2006 to 2008 that led to the start of the amnesty program. Pirtle thought he was affable, always smiling, but preoccupied, constantly putting his phone to his ear or jumping up to greet someone. As Pirtle would later recall on his blog, "This does not bother me, but I am having a difficult time following whatever it is he is trying to communicate to me. Caleb is a famous attorney in Uganda. He is drawn to high-profile cases. I am starting to understand why I am here."

Several days later, Pirtle met the third Ugandan attorney on the case, Nicholas Opio. But as the trial approached, Pirtle learned the team was outnumbered in several ways. "We are woefully lacking in resources, human and financial, to properly prepare for and try this case," he confessed on his blog. "We need investigators to go north and interview witnesses. Every trip to Gulu (five-hour trip) runs at minimum $500 for two days. The prosecution has at least 70 witnesses. We need our own and rebuttal witnesses. That means finding the witnesses in the northern villages (we can't exactly use the yellow pages). The trial proper will last for months."

Pirtle, who'd obtained a temporary license to practice in Uganda, and the others would earn no fees from the case. The Ugandans petitioned the government to meet the constitutional requirement to provide funding for the defense in a capital case. After initially refusing, the government said it would provide the equivalent of $500 U.S. for a defense that would require at least $100,000 to mount; the attorneys declined the $500 on principle.

Nevertheless, Pirtle blogged: "We can't walk away from this . . . We simply have to find a way."

A month later, after returning to Seattle, Pirtle learned they'd found one. He got a call from Onyango and then quickly relayed the news on his blog that day, September 26: "Thomas Kwoyelo is free. Equal protection under the law has prevailed."

A brief that Pirtle helped author, arguing that prosecuting Kwoyelo violated the constitutional guarantee of equality before the law, persuaded Uganda's Constitutional Court to halt the trial. "We are satisfied that the applicant has made out a case showing that the Amnesty Commission and the Director of Prosecutions have not accorded him equal treatment under the Amnesty Act. He is entitled to a declaration that their acts are inconsistent with . . . the Constitution and thus null and void."

Pirtle was elated. The International Crimes Division, which oversees amnesty, would now release Kwoyelo, he figured. "He can go through a reconciliation ritual and be welcomed back into his village," he blogged. "From there, he can start his life anew. I doubt I will ever see him again, but he, and this, will always be a part of me."

The Seattle attorney was still planning a return to Africa, however. Prisoner torture was a viable issue to be argued in the Ugandan courts, and other war-crimes cases were being considered, along with some homosexual-rights cases in which Pirtle had taken an interest.

Three days later, Pirtle blogged the bad news. He'd be going back to Africa, all right, but it would be to try to free Kwoyelo again.

"Unbeknownst to us until recently," he wrote, "the Attorney General filed an emergency appeal of the decision directly to the Supreme Court, along with a request to keep Kwoyelo imprisoned until they rule . . . The Constitutional Court ordered the International Crimes Division to stop the trial, but they are not in session. If the Supreme Court sits and rules against us before the International Crimes Division sits, we are screwed and this case is going to trial."

He called it "a huge setback, and everything is in flux right now. I know I am not supposed to have expectations, but I expect to be back in Africa soon."

 

Pirtle returned last month, first for a legal seminar in South Africa, then on to Uganda to meet with Onyango. Pirtle proposed challenging the attorney general's move, but Onyango was opposed—the attorney general, representing the Department of Public Prosecution, has no real decision-making authority, he said, and was under orders to pursue this case to the bitter end.

The prosecution of Kwoyelo had become somewhat like the history of Africa itself, a struggle of independence. It was a battle between the courts and war-crimes prosecutors, who feel that the Amnesty Act has no bearing on their case, despite rulings to the contrary. If Kwoyelo had been released, prosecutors said, they would have immediately arrested him outside the courthouse. The government claims Kwoyelo has had contact with LRA financiers, and if freed would just go back onto the killing fields. "Two judges have already called this argument bullshit," counters Pirtle. "Which it is."

Because the case involves national courts weighing international law, prosecutors are insisting the death penalty is on the table. "The International Crimes Division was set up under the Geneva Conventions Act, which expressly prohibits the death penalty," explains Pirtle. "Nevertheless, the judges at the International Crimes Division have said this is a Ugandan case and will be tried using Ugandan law, which allows the death penalty." Should Kwoyelo be convicted, there is sure to be another court battle over which penalty should apply.

On June 13, Pirtle, who had once thought he'd never see Kwoyelo again, met him once more at Luzira Prison, seven miles outside of Kampala. He and Onyango arrived this time in a roasting taxi—its windows wouldn't roll down—and were prepared for the routine delays at the old prison, home to 20,000 inmates, 500 of them on death row.

"Once there, however, it was surprisingly easy passing through the checkpoints and getting into the prison," Pirtle would recall on his blog. "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!'

"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."

Momentarily, Kwoyelo was brought in. "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 childlike delight. He actually speaks to me a little bit in English, 'I am happy you are here! Welcome! Yes, please! I am happy! Welcome, welcome! Yes, please!' "

With a translator and Onyango, the four met for an hour, discussing the next steps they could take. "At one point," Pirtle recalls, "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."

Kwoyelo's future at Luzira is up in the air, but could change in an instant once the Supreme Court gathers to hear the amnesty issue. That had been imminent, but the high court lacked a quorum of seven justices: It currently has only five, with two to be appointed from other courts. Yet no one seems to know when those appointments will be made.

Even more pressing, Kwoyelo's attorney Nicholas Opio has proposed an unprecedented move to have Kwoyelo released on bail. He had hoped to present such a petition to the court this week.

"One way or another, I'll be going back," Pirtle said last week. "Ideally, someday, I will return to take Kwoyelo home to his mother."

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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