Law student sues CIA over data on Salvadoran Army officer

SEATTLE — A University of Washington law school student has filed a federal Freedom of Information lawsuit alleging the CIA has illegally withheld information about an El Salvador Army officer suspected of human rights violations during that country‚Äôs civil war.

Mina Manuchehri is a fellow at the UW’s Center for Human Rights and a third-year law student. She alleges in a suit filed Friday in U.S. District Court that the CIA has withheld records regarding retired Salvadoran Army Col. Sigifredo Ochoa Perez, who is under criminal investigation in his own country for alleged involvement in the killings of civilians during El Salvador’s 1980s civil war against leftist rebels.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Manuchehri by attorneys from the Seattle law firm Davis Wright Tremaine, alleges the CIA has withheld documents sought under the Freedom of Information Act, even though some have been released elsewhere.

The action also challenges the CIA’s denial of records relating to University of California, Los Angeles, professor Philippe Bourgois, who survived a massacre allegedly led by Ochoa Perez in 1981 in Santa Cruz, El Salvador.

The lawsuit was filed in conjunction with a conference Monday at the UW School of Law that will include other survivors of the Santa Cruz massacre and other human rights experts, according to a news release from the Center for Human Rights. Bourgois, a professor of psychiatry and anthropology at UCLA, will attend.

The lawsuit alleges there is “ample evidence” that Ochoa Perez led troops that opened fire on unarmed civilians at Santa Cruz on Nov. 14, 1981, and again in the town of El Calabozo in August 1981. It alleges hundreds of civilians died in the attacks.

It claims that Ochoa Perez, a ranking officer in the military-led government, had “adhered closely to the United States’ suggested wartime strategy” of fighting leftist rebels attempting to overthrow the government.

The lawsuit alleges that Perez trained at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, D.C., and served as a commander of troops. It claims he adhered to a counterinsurgency strategy that was supported by the U.S. government.

It also claims he helped block humanitarian aid to areas thought to be occupied by guerrillas, and set up “free-fire zones” where troops could shoot and bomb with impunity, despite civilian populations.

The lawsuit states that Ochoa Perez is currently under investigation in El Salvador on orders of that country’s Supreme Court.

The civil war ended by treaty in 1992.

“Access to the documents requested by the (UW Center for Human Rights) could facilitate justice proceedings in these and other cases of grave rights abuses,” the lawsuit claims.

The center claims that numerous CIA records discussing the colonel are publicly available in the Library of Congress.

However, the CIA — in response to a FOIA request Manuchehri filed in 2013 — has stated it will neither confirm nor deny the existence of records regarding Ochoa Perez‚Äôs service as a military commander during the period of the alleged massacres.

Her requests for documents include any that relate to Bourgois, a U.S. citizen.

Bourgois claims he was among roughly 1,000 villagers in Santa Cruz who came under heavy machine-gun fire and bombing by government troops.

Again, the lawsuit claims the CIA responded by stating it could not confirm nor deny the existence of records responsive to her request.

“The CIA has wrongfully withheld the records,” the lawsuit alleges. “There is a substantial strong public interest in the disclosure of the documents requested.”

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©2015 The Seattle Times

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