On Friday, October 2, 2015, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UW CHR) filed a lawsuit against the CIA in the U.S. District Court in Seattle, alleging that the agency has failed to meet its obligations under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The UW CHR is seeking the release of U.S. government documents relating to the 1981 Santa Cruz massacre in El Salvador, as part of its mission to conduct research in support of front-line human rights organizations around the world. Earlier this year, the UW CHR released the first comprehensive report on the massacre, as well as an 18-minute documentary featuring survivors and human rights advocates.
“We believe that the CIA is unlawfully withholding documents regarding a commander of the military operation that resulted in the Santa Cruz massacre, as well as files on a U.S. citizen caught up in the operation,” said Angelina Snodgrass Godoy, Director of the UW CHR.
Since 2013, the UWCHR has filed over two hundred FOIA requests relating to the Salvadoran conflict. One such request sought CIA files on retired Salvadoran military officer Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, commander of a 1981 counterinsurgency operation in which witnesses reported the slaughter of dozens of civilians at Santa Cruz, in the state of Cabañas, El Salvador. The CIA responded that it could “neither confirm nor deny the existence or nonexistence of records,” due to national security concerns.
“The CIA’s denial of our request is not credible,” said Mina Manuchehri, a third year student at the UW School of Law, and the UWCHR’s lead FOIA researcher. “The CIA has previously declassified 20 documents relating to Ochoa. Why didn’t they at least give us copies of those same documents?”, she asked. “There can be no national security concerns about documents that have already been made public.” Ms. Manuchehri is a co-plaintiff on the UWCHR’s lawsuit.
Survivors of the Santa Cruz massacre and international human rights experts are in Seattle this week for “Access to Information as a Human Right,” a conference organized by the UWCHR. At the conference, Dina Cabrera, who was five months pregnant when she was wounded in the Santa Cruz massacre, called on U.S. and Salvadoran authorities to ensure truth, justice, and reparations for survivors of civil war atrocities.
Salvadoran survivors of human rights abuses including the Santa Cruz massacre have filed dozens of criminal complaints in the country’s justice system, but cases have seen few advances. “Despite favorable court rulings ordering investigations of these crimes, we have seen a lack of political will to deliver justice, especially in the Attorney General’s office,” said Mirla Carbajal, a lawyer with the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University, who travelled to Seattle for the conference at the UW.
Philippe Bourgois, a professor of Psychiatry and Anthropology at UCLA, who survived the Santa Cruz massacre while conducting research as a graduate student, also participated in the conference. The UWCHR’s lawsuit also challenges the CIA’s refusal to release documents regarding Bourgois, who advocated against U.S. military aid to El Salvador during the 1980s. In 2014, Bourgois provided sworn testimony to a Salvadoran prosecutor investigating the criminal complaint against Ochoa Pérez. “After the war ended, I thought that my time to speak out was over,” said Professor Bourgois. “But Salvadoran survivors are still fighting for justice, and it is an honor to be able to support them.”
Mina Manuchehri reflected on the impact of her work with the UWCHR. “Survivors and family members of victims in El Salvador are still struggling to learn what happened to their loved ones, and as a student, it is really gratifying to be able to contribute to their right to know the truth.”
“In addition to its legal obligations under FOIA, the U.S. government has a moral responsibility to support the cause of truth and justice in El Salvador, especially given the extent to which the U.S. supported the Salvadoran military during the country’s civil war,” said UWCHR Director Angelina Snodgrass Godoy.