In a rare reflection of judicial independence, United States District Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton from the Northern District of California ordered the Pentagon to release the names of who trains and teaches at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (SOA/WHINSEC), a U.S. military training school for Latin American soldiers that has been connected to torturers, death squads and military dictators throughout the Americas. Human rights activists had taken the U.S. government to court over its refusal to release the information, and won.
Read the court ruling here: SOAW.org/judgment
SOA Watch compiled the names, course, rank, country of origin, and dates attended for every soldier and instructor at the SOA/ WHINSEC from 1946 to 2003. After researchers exposed many cases of known human rights abusers attending the WHINSEC (despite claims that the “new” school was committed to human rights), and shared this research with Congressional decision-makers, the Department of Defense (DOD) refused to disclose any future information about students or teachers at the WHINSEC. The human rights community and the U.S. Congress did not agree with the decision. In 2008 and 2009, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the Defense Authorization bill demanding that the DOD release this information. President Obama signed this measure into law.
However, SOA/ WHINSEC supporters in Congress managed to slip in the caveat that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates could issue a waiver to ignore the public’s right to know and refuse to release the information, if he “determines it to be in the national interest.” Predictably, Obama’s Secretary of Defense used the waiver to deny human rights organizations and the public access to any more information.
Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), who has fought to close the school, praised the ruling.
“The House has twice voted for the names to be restored to public disclosure, as they were for nearly 40 years prior to 2006 when they were inexplicably classified,” said Representative McGovern. “I continue to believe that the WHINSEC should be shut down. In the meantime, I welcome the Court’s decision and I hope to see the WHINSEC return to genuine transparency immediately with the release of the names of its graduates, faculty and guest instructors.”
The school made headlines in 1996 when the Pentagon released training manuals used at the school that advocated torture, extortion and execution. Hundreds of SOA alumni have been implicated in human rights abuses and the formation of death squads, 11 Latin American military dictators, including Manuel Noriega of Panama, Hugo Banzer of Bolivia, General Rios Montt of Guatemala, attended the school. SOA graduates led the 2002 coup in Venezuela, and the 2009 coup in Honduras, and continue to be involved in repression campaigns in Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico.
“The decision by the court is a victory for transparency and human rights, and against government secrecy,” said SOA Watch founder Father Roy Bourgeois.
The release of the names is essential for Congress to make decisions about foreign military training. After the upholding of the value of transparency, and the public’s right to know, over the Obama Administration’s secrecy, human rights organizations will use this ruling to further expose the negative impact of the SOA/ WHINSEC in Latin America.
SOA Watch is an independent organization that seeks to close the SOA/WHINSEC through vigils and fasts, demonstrations and nonviolent protest, as well as media and legislative work. This November 22-24, SOA Watch will hold its annual vigil at the gates of the SOA in Fort Benning, Georgia. SOA Watch is working on a campaign to call attention to the continued human rights abuses associated with the SOA/ WHINSEC and demand that the school will be shut down.
Plaintiff Theresa Cameranesi is a member of the School of the Americas Watch Council. She is also a member of the SOA Watch Legislative Working Group and is active in advocating for Congressional investigation of the human rights records of graduates of SOA and WHINSEC. As part of the SOA Watch San Francisco Research Group, she and plaintiff Judy Liteky identified students and instructors at WHINSEC who were admitted for training even though they had been charged with human rights violations.
Plaintiff Judith Liteky has been active with School of the Americas Watch since its founding in 1990 in response to the massacre in San Salvador at the University of Central America. On the night of November 16, 1989, a Salvadoran Army patrol entered the University campus and massacred six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Nineteen of the military officers cited for this atrocity had received training at the US Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.
The SOA Watch plaintiffs are being represented by attorneys Duffy Carolan and Kent Spriggs.
Duffy Carolan is a partner with the San Francisco firm Davis Wright Tremaine. Attorney Carolan was recently honored by her peers as San Francisco’s Lawyer of the Year in Litigation – First Amendment cases. She has also received the James Madison Freedom of Information Award, a Bay Area honor given to individuals and organizations who have made significant contributions to the advancement of freedom of expression, particularly freedom of information and open government.
Kent Spriggs is the principal in Spriggs Law Firm, Tallahassee, Florida. Attorney Spriggs has represented individuals in civil rights actions, the majority in class actions. He also works in the field of international human rights, including representing those illegally detained at Guantánamo Bay, and assisted in the analysis of U.S. money used to destabilize sovereign Latin American democracies. He has been a human rights observer in El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, and Chile as well as Palestine and Afghanistan.