The past year was dominated by discovery disputes related to CCR’s efforts to obtain U.S. government documents that might shed light on the death of Benjamin Linder, a U.S. engineer who was murdered in 1987 by U.S.-supported contras in Nicaragua.
In 1988, CCR filed suit in federal district court in Miami against the contra organizations and their leaders, charging them with Linder’s death. (Linder and two Nicaraguans were murdered in April 1987 by contras who attacked then while they were constructing a small dam in a poor, rural area of Nicaragua.) Linder’s father, mother, sister, and brother asserted a cause of action under international law and the wrongful death law of Florida–the state in which the contras then had their headquarters and where much of their leadership lived.
In 1990 the district court dismissed the case on the political question grounds–a discretionary doctrine that precludes federal courts from deciding cases that could interfere with foreign policy. But in a precedent-setting opinion, the appeals court reversed in 1992, signifying, for the first time, that tort suits–suits for damages– could be based on violations of the customary laws of war.
CCR subpoenaed government documents relevant to the case in late 1993. A year an da half later, after the government refused to even discuss complying with the subpoenas, the court ordered it to produce some documents in July 1995. However, the NSA refused to cooperate, and the lower court sustained this position on administrative grounds, which CCR asserted did not properly balance “plaintiffs’ need for information with the government’s need for secrecy.”
In late August 1995, CCR filed a motion for further relief, asking the court to order the CIA, the department of State, the Department of Defense, and the FBI to supply the Linders with more information on the withheld documents and conduct a further search for documents. In December 1996, a lower court judge ruled in favor of the argument by the FBI and Departments of State and Defense that they had the right to withhold documents they deemed “secret.”
CCR appealed the denials to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. On January 16, 1998, the court granted CCR the right to pursue documents from the government agencies about the structure of, and human rights abuses perpetrated by, Nicaraguan Contra organizations. The Court Appeals ruled that the district court had failed to apply the proper standards pertaining to third-party subpoenas, and ordered the district court to reassess the plaintiffs’ demands for documents. The case is now back before the district court, where the government agencies continue their attempts to block access to the records that would support the Linders’ claims, but might also provide evidence of U.S. knowledge of, and acquiescence (or worse) in the commission of contra atrocities. After a decade of legal action, the suit to seek justice for Benjamin Linder continues to work to force U.S. agencies to disclose their own role in the deaths of U. S. citizens working to aid social change in other countries.
Jennifer M. Green, Beth Stephens, Gabor Rona, Michael Ratner, Jules Lobel, Daniel E. Jonas