A Miami jury found former Argentine naval officer Roberto Guillermo Bravo responsible for the extrajudicial killing of Eduardo Cappello, Rubén Bonet and Ana María Villarreal de Santucho, and the torture and attempted extrajudicial killing of Alberto Camps in the 1972 Trelew Massacre.
The jury awarded $24.25 million in damages, including $12 million in punitive damages, to the plaintiffs—family members of the four victims.
Plaintiffs counsel were Keker, Van Nest & Peters lawyers Ajay Krishnan, Franco Muzzio, and Neha Sabharwal; and Ela Matthews and Claret Vargas of the Center for Justice and Accountability; Markus/Moss PLLC and the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales.
Over the course of the five-day trial, the jury heard evidence that showed that in the early hours of Aug. 22, 1972, Bravo and other military officers woke up 19 sleeping prisoners, lined them up, and opened fire. They killed 16 prisoners and injured three, leaving them for dead, plaintiffs said.
Family members of the victims, eyewitnesses and experts testified that the plaintiffs and their families endured persecution in the decades following the massacre, the alleged military coverup, and the massacre’s impact on Argentine society.
Matthews said there were two big challenges with this case.
“The first was the amount of time which had passed since the Trelew Massacre. That was both a statute-of-limitations issue, and it affected our ability to get decades-old evidence from Argentina,” Matthews said. “The other challenge was that the only living person who claims to be an eyewitness to the shooting is Bravo. This allowed Bravo to shape his narrative around the evidence, without another live witness who could challenge him. We had to rely on physical and forensic evidence to point out the flaws in Bravo’s story.”
Miami attorneys Haber Law’s Steve Davis and Neal Sonnet of Neal R. Sonnett represented Bravo.
Davis said the plaintiffs’ claims fail as a matter of law based on the statute of limitations.
“We will file post trial motions on the statute of limitations and the tolling arguments the plaintiffs’ raised,” Davis said.
Only appearing in the case in late March, Davis said it was a challenge to get case trial ready, but through a great deal of hard work, his team did it.
Krishnan said his team didn’t sue for a particular number because the damages in this case were the pain and suffering the clients had experienced.
“Rather than putting a monetary value on that suffering, we presented the jury with the circumstances our clients faced, and it was up to the jury to value those claims,” Krishnan said.
U.S. District Judge Lauren F. Louis is presiding over this case.
In May of 1972, as part of the alleged persecution, the Argentine government began moving political prisoners to facilities far from their lawyers, families and communities, plaintiffs argued. Prisoners from the north were sent far south, and vice versa, the complaint stated. Plaintiffs’ relatives—political prisoners originally held in the cities of Buenos Aires and Rosario—were transferred to Rawson Penitentiary Prison, a maximum-security prison in Chubut, Patagonia, about 1,400 miles south of Buenos Aires.
On Aug. 15, 1972, the Argentine military detained nineteen political prisoners at Almirante Zar Naval Base in Trelew, Argentina, following an attempted escape from the nearby Rawson Penitentiary Prison, according to the complaint.
During their detention, they were primarily restricted to their cells, plaintiffs said. Armed guards escorted the prisoners from their cells, one or two at a time, for meals, to use the showers or toilets and for interrogation. The prisoners also ate meals at gunpoint, according to the complaint.
Defendant Bravo was a commissioned officer in the Argentine military. During the course of the prisoners’ week-long detention, Bravo and other officers stationed at Almirante Zar allegedly threatened the prisoners and tortured them, subjecting them to stress positions, forced nudity and mock executions.
Bravo allegedly ordered prisoners to strip and lie naked on the floor for long periods of time. He also forced prisoners into stress positions on the floor or against walls, the complaint stated.
In the early hours of Aug. 22, 1972, Bravo and three other officers came to the cells of the sleeping prisoners, armed with machine guns and pistols, the complaint alleged. They allegedly ordered the prisoners out of their cells and lined them up against a wall, ordering them to look down, according to the complaint.
Bravo and the other officers opened fire on the unarmed prisoners. Some fled back to their cells. Bravo and the other officers searched the cells for survivors to execute them.
Several prisoners were allegedly shot execution-style at close range, including Bonet, María Villarreal de Santucho, Ulla, and Sabelli. Others were shot while incapacitated, injured or hiding in their cells, including Camps, Haidar, Berger, Kohon and Delfino, the complaint stated.
By the end of the massacre, Bravo and the other officers had killed 13 of the 19 prisoners , including plaintiffs Villarreal de Santucho and Eduardo Cappello I, the complaint stated.
According to the complaint, Bravo and his fellow alleged perpetrators had a cover story—that they had been trying to prevent the prisoners’ escape—to justify their killings.
The military’s alleged cover-up of the Trelew Massacre prevented plaintiffs from investigating and discovering the truth of what happened on that night, the complaint stated. For decades, the victims’ families were unable to learn the identities of the perpetrators or of key witnesses present to uncover what had occurred, the complaint stated.
The plaintiffs filed three claim of reliefs against the defendant for the killing of most of the plaintiffs.
Muzzio said this case has made him think a lot about how Milan Kundera wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
“By persecuting anyone that dared to seek justice for these killings, the Argentine military did everything it could to force our clients and all of Argentina to forget about the massacre. But our clients refused to forget. This victory is entirely because of them and how they never gave up the pursuit of justice.”
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