The trial of former marine Bravo began

The Florida State University College of Law International Human Rights Clinic monitored the trial of former Argentine naval officer, Defendant Roberto Guillermo Bravo, represented by Neal R. Sonnett, P.A. and Haber Law P.A., beginning June 27, 2022, and provides this neutral report of trial events.

Drawing: Carlos Llerena Aguirre

Observations were recorded by Clinic students by hand daily, transcribed, and translated into Spanish for publication. For his alleged participation in the 1972 massacre of 16 unarmed prisoners, and attempted massacre of three additional unarmed prisoners, an event known as the Trelew Massacre, the Defendant faced civil trial and liability for extrajudicial killing, attempted extrajudicial killing, and torture under the federal Torture Victim Protection Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1350 (“TVPA”). The Plaintiffs who filed the case are four family members of prisoners allegedly attacked during the Trelew Massacre and are represented by the Center for Justice and Accountability (“CJA”), pro bono counsel Keker, Van Nest and Peters, LLP, and Markus and Moss PLLC, with support by the Center for Legal and Social Studies (“CELS”).

Day 1 – Monday, June 27, 2022:

This account summarizes what occurred on the first day of the trial in the case of Raquel Camps et al. v. Roberto Guillermo Bravo, No. 1:20-cv-24294-KMM.

The first half of the day was spent selecting a jury for the case.

Opening Statements:

At 2:15 p.m., Plaintiffs’ Counsel, Mr. Ajay Krishnan, began his opening statement by describing the events that occurred in Trelew. Mr. Krishnan stated that the Defendant, Roberto Bravo, along with fellow officers Luis Sosa and Emilio Del Real, went to the cells in the Almirante Zar Naval Base where the prisoners were held. There, he said, the prisoners were told to form two lines on either side of the hallway and were gunned down by the officers. Mr. Krishnan stated that Mr. Bravo’s and the military’s claims of self-defense are not consistent with the manner or brutality of the deaths, as one victim was shot at point-blank range in the back of the neck and another pregnant victim was shot repeatedly in the abdomen.

Mr. Krishnan argued the military then covered up the events at Trelew, and as part of that plan sent Mr. Bravo to the United States as a military aide. Meanwhile, he stressed, the surviving victims and families were persecuted relentlessly by the military.

Mr. Krishnan described the deceased victims and pointed out their relatives who were present in the courtroom (some surviving relatives were not able to be present). Mr. Krishnan informed the jury that this is a civil trial and indicated that Mr. Bravo should be standing for a criminal trial in Argentina.

Mr. Krishnan highlighted four key points of the Plaintiffs’ claim: (1) that Mr. Bravo and his co-conspirators conspired to kill 19 unarmed prisoners; (2) that Mr. Bravo’s claim of self-defense is false and part of a conspiracy to cover up the massacre; (3) that the statute of limitations has been paused and therefore does not act as a valid defense for Mr. Bravo, and (4) that Plaintiffs must be compensated for the suffering Mr. Bravo caused.

Mr. Krishnan emphasized that any chance of justice after the massacre was slim due to the Lanusse regime’s rough treatment of civilian “subversives” by subjecting them to military tribunals, arbitrary detention, and other acts of violence. Mr. Krishnan indicated that further information about the Lanusse regime would be presented by an expert witness.

Mr. Krishan described the prison-break at Rawson Prison in Chubut that happened before the Trelew Massacre. He argued that while there were reports of a guard being killed, the circumstances of that killing were not clear. He explained that the while some got away, 19 prisoners did not; those prisoners negotiated a surrender and were transferred to Almirante Zar Naval Base in Trelew.

Mr. Krishnan displayed a layout of the cell block where the prisoners were held at the base, showing the narrow corridor between cells where the prisoners were ordered to stand in two rows, while holding out his arms to show the corridor was no wider than the length of his arms. He pointed out the single entrance, resulting in the prisoners being pinned in, and the post where the guard was ordered to leave before the killings began. Mr. Krishnan stated that later evidence would prove that Mr. Bravo and his co-conspirators had planned the killings that took place in the cell block.

Mr. Krishnan displayed pictures of the weapons used in the massacre: a .45 caliber handgun carried by the officers and Pistola Ametralladora Modelo (PAM) machine guns used by personnel on base. He argued the killings were planned because those who escaped back into their cells were pursued by the officers and gunned down there. He pointed to Alberto Camps’ supporting statement given while recuperating from injuries sustained in the massacre.

Mr. Krishnan informed the jury that Mr. Bravo’s co-conspirators, Sosa and Del Real, were convicted of homicide of 16 prisoners and attempted homicide of three surviving prisoners in 2012 in Argentina. Mr. Krishnan stressed that Mr. Bravo escaped the same fate by living in the United States.

Turning to the Defendant’s self-defense claim, Mr. Krishnan alleged that it arose from a military cover-up which involved parroting the official story, threatening witnesses, conducting a biased investigation, exonerating officers, and silencing victims’ families and lawyers. Mr. Krishnan questioned the military’s account, asking why so many people with much to live for would throw their lives away in such a hopeless situation by attacking the military guards.

With respect to the statute of limitations defense, Mr. Krishnan claimed that prosecution in Argentina was not possible until 2005, that Mr. Bravo was very difficult to find, and that he was not located until 2008 with the help of Interpol. Mr. Krishnan argued that the families of the victims pursued all possible remedies in Argentina before pursuing justice in U.S. courts. Mr. Krishnan highlighted the irony of the Defendant’s claim that his clients had both taken too long pursuing justice in Argentina before bringing a claim under the TVPA, while also failing to exhaust all local remedies before bringing such a claim.

Mr. Krishnan concluded by arguing that his clients deserve justice and compensation. He stressed that while the victims’ families have been on the run, Mr. Bravo has lived a comfortable life in Miami: he heads numerous companies and has accumulated wealth around $5 Million. Mr. Krishnan pointed out that Mr. Bravo was wealthy enough to give each of his three sons gifts of $500,000 only a few years ago.

Next, Defense Attorney Steve Davis of Haber Law, P.A., began his opening statement at 2:47 p.m. by saying “[t]his case is about [Mr. Bravo] acting to protect himself at a sudden incident. It was a tragedy, but it was an accident, not an execution.” Mr. Davis told the jury that for the Plaintiffs to prevail under the TVPA, they need to show both that 1) the killings were intentional, deliberate, and calculated, and 2) that the case was brought in a timely manner. Mr. Davis claimed that the Plaintiffs could not prove either—they could not prove the first element because Mr. Bravo’s response occurred in a matter of seconds, and therefore was not planned, and that they could not prove the second element provided the relevant events occurred 50 years ago.  

Mr. Davis said Mr. Bravo’s interactions with the prisoners at Trelew were very minimal prior to the night of the killings; he never surveilled them, escorted them anywhere on the base, or interrogated them. Mr. Davis explained that the extent of Mr. Bravos’ involvement with the prisoners was a daily meeting with the soldiers who monitored them to inquire as to how the prisoners were doing.

Mr. Davis said that the following events happened on the night of August 22, 1972. Mr. Bravo was summoned to the cells around 3:00 a.m. by Corporals Marandino and Marchan. Later his superior officers, Captain Sosa and Lieutenant Del Real, arrived on the scene, at which point Sosa ordered the cells to be opened and the prisoners to exit. Marandino opened all the cell doors as Marchan left, claiming he did not feel well. Mr. Bravo felt uncomfortable with the situation, grabbing a PAM machine gun for security. Sosa then paced between the two rows of prisoners, yelling at them. At some point, prisoner Pujadas hit and grabbed Sosa’s gun, and shot twice. Sosa was on the floor, and Mr. Bravo and Del Real reacted by opening fire to stop him from getting injured. Mr. Davis claimed the shootings were instinctive acts that happened in a split second. Mr. Davis stressed that Mr. Bravo never used a handgun—as the Plaintiffs claim he did to commit execution-style killings—and did not go into the cells or approach any of the bodies after the shootings.

Mr. Davis emphasized that Sosa was the superior officer in the situation and in charge of the events leading up to the killings. Mr. Davis claimed that the Plaintiffs want Mr. Bravo to pay for the crimes of the Argentine military, not the crimes of Mr. Bravo himself.

In arguing the Plaintiffs cannot win under the TVPA, Mr. Davis stated that Mr. Bravo was acting in self-defense, and that the Plaintiffs failed to pursue the action within the 10-year statute of limitations.

Mr. Davis concluded by describing Mr. Bravo’s life in the United States. Mr. Davis stressed that Mr. Bravo spent years working hard by building himself up, receiving an education, building his own businesses, and creating a successful life for himself and his family. Mr. Davis argued that because Mr. Bravo’s businesses were publicly listed, he was easily findable dating back to the 1990s, giving the Plaintiffs no excuse for not pursuing legal action sooner. Mr. Davis said the Plaintiffs could have sued Mr. Bravo from 1995 onward in U.S. courts but did not, therefore the statute of limitations has passed. Finally, Mr. Davis emphasized that the military investigation into the massacre already proved that Mr. Bravo never acted deliberately.

Opening statements ended at 3:07 p.m.

Plaintiffs’ Witness 1:

The Plaintiffs’ first expert witness, James Brennan, Ph.D., a professor from the University of California – Riverside, took the stand and was sworn in at 3:29 p.m. Plaintiffs’ counsel, CJA Attorney Ela Matthews, questioned the witness starting with his credentials. Dr. Brennan testified that he is an expert on Argentine history post-1945 and has studied the country’s history for over 40 years. Dr. Brennan then testified that he was present to provide “historical context about Argentina, Trelew, and the obstacles the families faced in pursuit of justice.”

Ms. Matthews asked for a description of the state of Argentina following the Trelew Massacre. Dr. Brennan characterized that time as rife with conflict followed by multiple military coups until 1983, when a democratic government was established. Ms. Matthews directed the witness to Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 1 at 3:40 p.m., which the witness identified as Argentine President Lanusse, whom he described as entrenched on the civil liberties of the Argentinian people.

The witness was directed to Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 2 at 3:42 p.m., which the witness identified as Rawson Prison. Dr. Brennan explained that this distant prison was used to hold political prisoners and to make them “invisible” by being out of the public eye. Ms. Matthews asked whether there were governmental death squads, and the witness confirmed they existed. When asked what types of people were targeted by these death squads, Dr. Brennan explained that many were young people between the ages of 18-25, including students, lawyers, and those that pursued justice against the military. Dr. Brennan confirmed that a previous lawyer of one of the Plaintiffs was among those targeted.

Dr. Brennan stated he is also familiar with the prosecution of Trelew victims’ families such as the Pujadas, Santuchos, and the survivors themselves. Ms. Matthews introduced Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 111 at 4:03 p.m. Dr. Brennan recognized it as a photograph of Alberto Camps recovering from a gunshot wound, explaining that Camps was killed a year after the Trelew Massacre. Next, Plaintiffs’ Exhibit 114 was introduced at 4:05 p.m., which featured Ricardo Haidar suffering from a gunshot wound. Dr. Brennan confirmed that Haidar was also killed a year after the Trelew massacre.

Ms. Matthews asked Dr. Brennan if Argentina tried to remedy the atrocities committed by the military. Dr. Brennan responded that Argentina did not do anything directly to address the Trelew massacre, but in 1985 a truth commission was formed, and some judicial proceedings were attempted. However, he said the military began stonewalling, attempted a coup, and allegedly threatened those seeking justice. Ms. Matthews concluded her questioning at 4:21 p.m.

At 4:22 p.m., Defense Attorney Mr. Neal Sonnett began questioning the credibility of Dr. Brennan. Dr. Brennan clarified that he is not an expert on the events of Trelew, nor is he familiar with the Trelew trial. He described his purpose at the trial as providing historical context. Mr. Sonnett asked if the witness had any knowledge about ballistics, and he responded that he did not. Mr. Sonnet inquired if Dr. Brennan knew who fired the shots at Trelew and why those shots were fired, and the witness said he did not. Dr. Brennan testified that he has never been to Trelew. Finally, Dr. Brennan stated that he has no knowledge of Mr. Bravo’s participation in any violence after the events at Trelew and that he knows Mr. Bravo was not in Argentina after the Trelew Massacre. Mr. Sonnett concluded at 4:45 p.m.

Plaintiffs’ Witness 2

The Plaintiffs’ second witness, Eduardo Cappello II, took the stand at 4:46 p.m. and was sworn in. Plaintiffs’ counsel, CJA Attorney Claret Vargas, asked Mr. Cappello about his connection to the events at Trelew. Mr. Cappello explained he was the nephew of one of the victims, Eduardo Cappello I, and that he is the only surviving member of the Cappello family. He described being taken in by his grandparents after his family was “disappeared.” When asked whether his namesake had any siblings besides the witness’s father, the witness answered no.

While Mr. Cappello expressed that he never met his uncle because he was born after his uncle’s death, he recalled that his family spoke about his uncle daily in his childhood.

Judge Louis concluded the day’s proceedings at 5:02 p.m. and indicated that Mr. Cappello’s testimony would continue the following day.