Records Sought on Alleged Death Squad Leader

     MANHATTAN (CN) - New York Times reporter Julia Preston sued the Department of Justice for records on retired Salvadoran Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, who led the National Guard and Defense Ministry while death squads murdered tens of thousands of people. He has been denied relief from removal from the United States.
     Preston and the Times challenged the Justice Department's refusal to release records from Vides Casanova's immigration hearings, in a federal FOIA complaint.
     Vides Casanova was director of El Salvador's National Guard from October 1979 until April 1983, and minister of defense from then until 1989.
     The vast majority of the tens of thousands of government-sponsored death squad killings came under his watch.
     "General Vides has been accused of 'ordering, inciting, assisting or otherwise participating' in the commission of acts of torture and extrajudicial killing during those time periods, pursuant to INA [Immigration and Nationality Act] § 237(a)(4)(D)," the complaint states.
     The INA and the 1980 Refugee Act prohibit torturers and other gross abusers of human right from legally immigrating to in the United States.
     "General Vides was accused, among other things, of assisting or otherwise participating in the killing of a group of four American churchwomen and the assassinations of two American labor leaders.
     "Upon retiring in 1989, General Vides immigrated to the United States as a legal permanent resident. At the time of immigration, General Vides had close family members residing in the United States. General Vides had visited the United States and met with U.S. officials frequently during his tenure."
     In 2002, a Florida jury found Vides civilly liable for the torture of three Salvadorans. The jury also ruled against another former Salvadoran defense minister, Gen. Jose Guillermo Garcia.
     But the United States did not try to "remove" Vides until Oct. 2, 2009. (Immigration removal can mean deportation or voluntary departure. Voluntary departure is preferable for immigrants because returning within 10 years of deportation could subject them to prosecution for criminal re-entry.)
     After Vides' removal hearing, Immigration Judge James Grim issued a written decision, in February 2012. Preston believes the decision hinged, in part, on whether Vides had "'committed, ordered, incited, assisted or otherwise participated' in certain human rights violations, to wit, torture or extrajudicial killing."
     Preston says the written decision "was an exhaustive examination of the testimonial and documentary evidence that had been presented in a public proceeding ... the most comprehensive legal assessment of General Vides's role in human rights abuses to date."
     Testimony included statements from two torture survivors, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, a former deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy, and thousands of pages of documents.
     Judge Grim issued a second written decision in August 2012, in which he "denied all of General Vides's requests for relief from removal," the Times says in the complaint.
     It says Grim allowed the public to attend the first 7-day removal hearing.
     Preston and the Times asked for the February and August decisions in a Sept. 28, 2012 FOIA request.
     The Justice Department denied them, claiming "that because the decisions were 'preliminary' and The Times was a 'third-party requester' and had not obtained General Vides's authorization, The Times was not entitled to the two decisions" to protect Vides's privacy.
     The Times appealed on Nov. 7, and the Justice Department denied the appeal on Jan. 3 this year, though this time "DOJ did not make the same argument that the decisions were somehow not final."
     The Times told the Justice Department and the Executive Office of Immigration Review by letter on Feb. 14 that withholding the two decisions "was contrary to the First Amendment and common law rights of access."
     The Justice Department has not responded to these letters "in any way."
     "The public has a particular interest in monitoring General Vides's case given his alleged history of participating in torture, extrajudicial killing and other human rights violations, especially in light of his long-term stay in the United States despite these accusations," the complaint states. "The public's interest is only heightened by the understanding that Immigration Judge Grim interpreted and applied a statute concerning human rights violators in a new way, a precedent that other immigration judges may follow.
     "Further, the public has a particular interest in Judge Grim's examination of the submitted evidence in a proceeding highly unusual for an immigration court in its length, type and number of witnesses, and number of submitted documents. Finally, the public has a particular interest in the decisions which implicate the credibility of former U.S. officials.
     "Without prompt access to the decision, the public is unable to discern whether DOJ is performing its duties lawfully and adequately."
     The Times wants to see the documents.
     During years of intense death squad killings in El Salvador and Guatemala, it was virtually impossible for a Salvadoran or Guatemalan civilian to win political asylum in the United States. Immigration judges did not start granting asylum until the Iran-Contra scandal, which became public in November 1986, discredited U.S policy in Central America.
     President George H.W. Bush pardoned high U.S. officials convicted or awaiting trial for Iran-Contra charges, effectively ending U.S. government investigations of wrongdoing in Central America under the Regan and first Bush administrations.
     Just so, according to the timeline in this complaint, Gen. Vides's immigration case apparently was not subjected to U.S. government action until after President George W. Bush left office.