Survivor testimony mysteriously stolen during office break-in after human rights group sues the CIA
Confidential files containing evidence of violations committed during El Salvador ’s civil war have been stolen from a Washington-based human rights group just days after it launched legal proceedings against the CIA over classified files on a former US-backed military commander implicated in massacres, deaths squads and forced disappearances.
A computer and hard drive containing testimonies from survivors were stolen from the office of the director of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR) last week.
The director’s office was the only one raided, there were no signs of forced entry, and items of monetary value were left behind, raising concerns that it could have been a targeted attack linked to the group’s sensitive work, said UWCHR .
The stolen files contained details of investigations related to the 1980-1992 civil war which left at least 75,000 people dead, 8,000 missing and a million displaced. The vast majority of crimes were committed by US-backed military dictatorships against civilians in rural communities suspected of supporting the leftist guerrillas, according to the UN-sponsored truth commission.
Perpetrators were granted immunity from prosecution by a 1993 amnesty law, which remains intact despite being ruled illegal by the Inter American Court of Human Rights.
This has left survivors little option but to seek truth and justice with the help of international human rights groups and lawyers .
The UWCHR has uncovered previously unseen information held by federal agencies such as the CIA and DEA, which it has shared with relatives of victims.
In December 2013, it requested information regarding retired Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, who allegedly commanded troops in some of the war’s bloodiest massacres.
Ochoa is the subject of an open criminal investigation in El Salvador for the November 1981 Santa Cruz massacre which left as many as 200 civilians dead . He is a named defendant in the 1982 El Calabozo scorched earth operation in which 250 people were gunned down and their bodies then doused in acid. Ochoa is also implicated in the forced disappearances of several children which have been investigated by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The retried colonel went on to serve as an elected member of parliament, standing down in May 2015.
The CIA refused to release information about Colonel Ochoa – who was highly regarded by American military trainers despite his suspected links to death squads – on national security grounds.
“That the agency did not even point us to the relevant documents already declassified suggests that they are not complying with their freedom of information obligations,” said Phil Neff, project coordinator at UWCHR.
The group filed a freedom of information suit against the CIA on 2 October. The sensitive files were stolen two weeks later. The robbery is under investigation by the University of Washington police.
A spokesman for the CIA said: “The suggestion that CIA had anything to do with this incident is offensive, insulting, and patently false.“
In a statement UWCHR said: “What worries us most is not what we have lost but what someone else may have gained: the files include sensitive details of personal testimonies and pending investigations.
“This could, of course, be an act of common crime. But we are concerned because it is also possible this was an act of retaliation for our work … The timing of the incident invites doubt as to potential motives.”
Several rights groups in El Salvador investigating war crimes have suffered similarly suspicious robberies.
In November 2013, armed men broke into the Pro Búsqueda Association for Missing Children offices in San Salvador and stole computers and attempted to burn paper files containing meticulously gathered evidence of hundreds of enforced disappearances.
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