Michael Withey

On October 14th, 2016 the University of Washington School of Law hosted a conference entitled “Human Rights Abuses: Expose the Cover-Ups” before a packed class room of students, activists, journalists and attorneys. See the Expose Cover Ups website for the program, sponsors and partners. Links to various presentations have been included throughout this article; a complete list of all videos and presentations from the event can be found by scrolling to the bottom of the page.

The Conference brought together attorneys and the activists/survivors involved in human rights cases worldwide dedicated to expanding the concept of human rights and strategizing on how to expose and defeats attempt to cover-up human rights abuses. Both author Mike Withey and CJDV leader Cindy Domingo spoke and were well received.

Convened by the UW Law School, the UW Center for Human Rights, and the Domingo and Viernes Story, the conference brought together over 20 human rights, community, religious, and civil liberties organizations from around the country as Partners, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American Constitution Society (ACS), the Church Council of Greater Seattle, the Sierra Club, and the Legacy of Equality, Leadership and Organization (LELO), which was founded by Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes in the mid 1970s.

The Keynote Speaker was Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in New York, which saw a recent victory in the Floyd v. City of New York case when it found that the New York Police Department’s practice of “stop and frisk” singled out people of color and was unconstitutional. Vince stirred the audience with his description of that important case while grounding the theme of the conference by saying, “If you have an activist, an attorney, and a storyteller, you can change the world.” He talked about the central pillars of “Transparency and Accountability” as the pre-requisites to the respect for human rights and democratic norms. View Vince’s complete speech here.

Co-Keynote speaker, Almudena Bernabeu, of the Center for Justice and Accountability in San Francisco, spoke to the conference attendees via Skype and showed a dramatic video about the infamous Jesuit Massacres case from El Salvador. Click here and use the password “montano” to access and open the video. to access the video.

The morning panel “Activists Speak Out” moderated by Tacoma civil rights attorney Jack Connelly, brought together human rights survivors active in past and present struggles. Details of this panel can be found below, and to watch or rewatch this panel, click here.

During the panel, Seattle Poet and Attorney Nikkita Oliver electrified the audience by performing a poem reflecting the struggles of the Black Live Matters movement. Clemente Rodriguez and Pablo Hernandez, parents of students from a teacher’s college who were “disappeared” as part of the “Ayotzinapa 43” students who have been missing since 2014. Clemente and Pablo recounted the many instances in which the local authorities and Mexican government covered up this horrendous crime and blocked their justice efforts to prove that local authorities, not just the drug gangs, were involved.

Cindy Domingo, the former National Coordinator of the Committee for Justice for Domingo and Viernes, spoke about the important and hard fought lessons learned by the CJDV in pursing justice. She stressed the importance of building a mass movement to pressure the perpetrators and prosecuting authorities to charge and convict all who were responsible. She stated it was essential to have a clear message and purpose in exposing the role of the powerful interests, including the Marcos regime and U.S. intelligence agencies, in trying to cover up the murders. The video, created by Seattle filmmaker Sharon Maeda can be found online here.

Gerald Lenoir, of the Black Alliance for Immigration Reform and former head of the anti-Apartheid movement in Seattle spoke on why the Black Lives Matter movement is not just a civil rights struggle but is essentially a struggle for international human rights for people of color in the U.S. The human rights include to be free of mass incarceration, violence against unarmed black men by the police, and the militarization of police in the U.S. The discussion period lastly featured Joyce Horman, widow of Charles Horman, an independent journalist murdered by the Chilean military officers with the connivance of US Navy officer, in 1973. These officers have recently been sentenced to long prison terms in Chile.

The luncheon speaker was UW Law Dean Kellye Testy who encouraged the students present to view their law careers as a “calling” not just a business and cited the portions of the Code of Professional Responsibility which encouraged attorneys to be “public citizens” who should take into consideration the social, economic, cultural and political conditions in choosing who to represent. Hear more from here here.

The first afternoon panel, entitled “Lessons from the Field” featured Angelina Godoy of the UW Center for Human Rights, as well as author of Assassination on Embassy Row, John Dinges, and Mike Withey, attorney and author of the upcoming book Summary Execution: The Political Assassinations of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes. Their speeches can be found by following this link. One common feature of these presentations was the call to address and remedy human rights abuses with a steely determination to get to the bottom of the violations – no matter how long it takes.

Speaking next, Angelina described the UW’s legal efforts to obtain documents from the CIA related to the El Salvadoran death squads responsible for the forced “disappearances” of tens of thousands of farmers, students and activists during that country’s civil war. She has been able to overcome the assertion of the “Glomar” exception to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by which US agencies can state they can neither confirm nor deny that it does or does not have any responsive documents. She showed a dramatic video of an El Salvadoran woman, Sara, whose father went to work one day and never came home titled Our Parents’ Bones, which can be viewed at the previous link.

John Dinges, also a Professor Emeritus at the Columbia School of Journalism, brought the “storytellers’” view to the Conference, and described the remarkable similarities between the assassinations of former Chilean Ambassador to the US, Orlando Letelier, and his assistant, Ronnie Moffit, by the Pinochet regime in Chile and the Domingo and Viernes murders by the Marcos regime in the Philippines.

Speaking more on the Domingo and Viernes Murders, Mike Withey outlined the “Anatomy of a Cover Up”; click on the link to read Mike’s paper which described the common features of a cover-up of political crimes. These include the use of a “cover-story”, the failure of prosecuting attorneys to charge all who are responsible, obstruction of justice, including murdering witnesses and suborning perjury, as in the case of the FBI informant at the scene of the Domingo and Viernes murders who testified on behalf of the hit men, and reactionary legal doctrines like national security immunity, state’s secret doctrine, the Glomar Explorer exception, to name a few. Mike described the way that the cover up of the Domingo and Viernes murders was exposed and defeated, leading to the victory against the Marcos regime which for the first and only time held a foreign head of state liable for the murders of US citizens on US soil. Mike stressed that it was essential to put forward a clear and convincing theory of the murders, bring mass pressure on prosecuting authorities to go after the higher levels of the murder conspiracy and to never give up! Slides of Mike’s presentation can be accessed here.

The final Panel on “Reforming the Criminal Justice System”, accessed here, included previous speakers Nikkita Oliver, Gerald Lenoir, Vince Warren and added local Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Eric Nalder. Eric described a detailed study of how a group of reporters at the Seattle Times, using extensive data from the Seattle Municipal Court, proved that the police demonstrated profound racial bias in charging “contempt of cop” or “obstructing a police officer.” Such “low level encounters” between the police and people of color often lead to arrests, physical violence and punishment that could have been prevented had racial bias not been employed and efforts to de-escalate the situation rather than assert an aggressive stance were called for.

The Conference ended on a high note with the audience and speakers agreeing that further networking and conferencing on these important issues was necessary to break down a sense of isolation and “silo-ing” that can occur when organizations are focused on their own work and needs and don’t always have the time to reach out across organizational lines to exchange information, strategies and inspiration from the work of others. Post-Conference evaluations rated the Conference program as “excellent” and the reactions were uniformly very enthusiastic, including endorsements like “Nikkita: Awesome” and “Vince Warren was absolutely amazing.”

The Conference is now considering methods to continue this dialogue, create opportunities for networking the convening and partnering organizations and share the enthusiasm and results from the day-long seminar in social media, video, and oral and written presentations to the Partnering groups and beyond. This was a day very well spent.





For more, see Mike Withey’s interview with Mike McCormick on KEXP’s Mind Over Matters taken on November 7, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.