On October 2, 2015, the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights filed suit against the US Central Intelligence Agency in federal district court. The case is related to our “Unfinished Sentences” project aiming to promote truth, justice, and reparations for survivors of the armed conflict in El Salvador.

Our FOIA research

For the past three years, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) has been conducting research on human rights abuses committed during the Salvadoran armed conflict from 1980-1992.We have filed approximately two hundred Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests seeking information on specific cases under investigation in El Salvador with various federal agencies, including the CIA, DIA, DOS, and SOUTHCOM. When we have received documents in response from these agencies, we have shared them with survivors and their advocates in El Salvador; in their ongoing search for truth, many have told us these efforts make a difference.

However, our requests to the CIA for information relating to Salvadoran Col. Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez (Ret.) were denied on national security grounds. Col. Ochoa was a well-known commander, highly regarded by US trainers; he commanded troops allegedly involved in the November 1981 massacre of Santa Cruz. In addition, we filed a FOIA request to the CIA for information relating to US citizen Philippe Bourgois, who was caught up in the massacre while in El Salvador conducting research for his PhD dissertation; this request also received the same response.

We are aware of at least 20 CIA documents responsive to our request that have already been declassified. The fact that the CIA has failed to, at minimum, grant us access to those same documents suggests they chose not to take their FOIA obligations seriously. For this reason, after conversations at the highest levels of UW leadership, the University of Washington decided to sue the CIA under FOIA.

 Why this matters

The Salvadoran civil war claimed the lives of at least 75,000 civilians, many eliminated in rural massacres. Although a UN Truth Commission attributed some 85 percent of these crimes to state forces, no judicial body in El Salvador or beyond has launched a comprehensive inquiry into the crimes against humanity that took place; due to limited resources, the Truth Commission itself chose to highlight only a few emblematic cases. In this context, thousands of Salvadoran families are still searching for basic information about the fate of their lost loved ones. Some of this information may be obtainable in US records.

Today, Ochoa is the subject of an open criminal investigation in the case of the November 1981 massacre of Santa Cruz, which the UWCHR documented in a 2015 research report. Ochoa is also a named defendant in the case of the 1982 massacre at El Calabozo, currently stalled in the Salvadoran justice system. Lastly, he is implicated in several cases of forced disappearance of children in which the Inter-American Court for Human Rights has ordered the Salvadoran state to open investigations in recent years. One of our student researchers, third-year law student Mina Manuchehri, filed the original request and has chosen to be a co-plaintiff with the University of Washington on the suit. Although a Seattle Times article gives the impression that Mina is acting alone, this is mistaken; throughout this process, the University of Washington has been unflinching in its support for what we do. This kind of action — defending freedom of information, in the interest of generating and disseminating knowledge — lies at the core of our mission as a research university, yet we’re not aware of another such case in the nation. As Mina said when we filed suit, “I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am to be a part of an institution that is willing to stand behind its faculty, staff, and students as we fight for access to information that has the potential of helping survivors of unimaginable crimes achieve justice and healing.”

Our work was covered on KUOW, KING-5 TV, in The Stranger and in Mother Jones, as well as in numerous other print and TV outlets in both English and Spanish.

For updates on the case, and more information about its growing list of supporters, please check our website, Facebook, and Twitter.