Fifty years on from the so-called ‘Trelew Massacre,’ a former Argentine Navy officer is being put on trial in Miami for his alleged role in the extrajudicial execution of 16 political prisoners.
Roberto Guillermo Bravo, a former Navy lieutenant with US citizenship who has lived in America for the past four decades, has managed to evade the grasp of Argentina’s justice system for half a century.
On Monday however, he finally stood trial following a civil lawsuit filed by the relatives of Rubén Bonet, Eduardo Cappello and Ana María Villareal de Santucho, who died in the massacre, and Alberto Camps, who survived.
On August 15, 1972, during the dictatorship of Alejandro Agustín Lanusse (1971-1973), Argentine military officers imprisoned 19 members of Peronist and left-wing armed organisations at the Almirante Zar Naval Air Base in Trelew, in the Patagonian Province of Chubut.
The prisoners had allegedly attempted to escape from the nearby Rawson prison, authorities claimed at the time.
The incident took place as the activities of left-wing guerrilla groups began to escalate in Argentina. Human rights groups say the illegal killings were a foreshadowing of the crimes against humanity committed by the brutal 1976-1983 military dictatorship which came to power soon after.
‘Act of evil’
According to the indictment, in the early hours of August 22, 1972, Bravo and three other officers came to the jail cells of the sleeping prisoners at Almirante Zar, armed with machine- guns and pistols. They allegedly ordered them out of their cells, lined them up in a narrow corridor and then opened fire on them from close range.
Some of the survivors fled to their cells where, according to the indictment, Bravo and the other officers sought them out to execute them. The Navy ex-officer stands accused of firing a number of fatal shots that killed prisoners.
"It was an act of evil," Ajay S. Krishnan, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, testified during his opening statement to the US court.
Sixteen of the 19 prisoners died of their wounds; the remaining three survived but were seriously injured.
Prior to the killing, Bravo and the other officers had subjected the prisoners to acts of torture such as sleep deprivation, forced nudity and mock executions, the plaintiffs allege.
Bravo denies the accusations and claims the shooting was an act of self-defence after one of the prisoners stole another officer's gun.
"What happened was a tragedy but it was not an execution," argued one of his lawyers, Steven Wayne Davis.
The defence tried to play down Bravo's role at the Trelew base, describing him as a mere logistician, and argued that the statute of limitations had also passed.
“For nearly 50 years, the families of the victims of the Trelew Massacre have been waiting for all its perpetrators to face accountability,” said Katerina Siefkas, a lawyer who is representing one of the plaintiffs.
“Our clients seek the opportunity to present their story and to achieve the justice that has long been denied to them,” she said in comments reported by the Associated Press news agency.
More than a dozen witnesses are expected to testify during the case.
Long road to justice
Addressing the seven jurors in the case on Monday, lawyers for the prosecution detailed a host of reasons why their clients had not been able to sue Bravo previously.
In the years after the events, those who reported what had happened were threatened or even executed, they argued, adding that authorities in Argentina did not even locate the former Navy lieutenant until 2008, they recalled.
Bravo attended Monday's hearing wearing a suit, tie and his long hair tied back in a ponytail.
He left the country in 1973, travelling to the United States, where he soon took up a post as a military attaché to Argentina’s Embassy in Washington.
In 1982, he moved to Miami, obtaining US citizenship in 1987. He went on to become a successful businessman in the following years, serving as company president of RGB Group Inc, a medical services company providing services to the Armed Forces.
According to an investigation carried out by the Clarín newspaper, between 1998 and 2008 the firm signed 460 contracts worth more than US$100 million with branches of the US military, including the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.
Efforts to bring Bravo to justice have been complicated and began after an investigation into the massacre was reopened in 2006.
A warrant for his arrest was issued in 2008 relating to his alleged role in the massacre, with an extradition order filed by authorities in Argentina a year later. He was arrested in Miami and released after posting bail of US$1.2 million, but a judge later rejected the move to have him stand trial in Argentina, ruling that “extradition is legally prohibited" because "the crimes Bravo is accused of constitute political offences.”
However, a judge in Miami would eventually choose to reject the extradition. The United States rejected that request in 2010.
In October, 2012, 40 years after the massacre, three other officers – Luis Sosa, Emilio Del Real and Carlos Marandino – accused of perpetrating the massacre were sentenced to life imprisonment in Argentina for their part in the extrajudicial killings. Bravo did not face trial at the time as trials in absentia are prohibited by law.
The accused now faces civilian prosecution after a lawsuit was filed under the Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows US courts to try cases involving torture and extrajudicial killings committed in other countries.
Extradition, however, may still be possible. Earlier this year, in March, Assistant US District Attorney in Miami Jason Wu ruled in favour, accepting the argument that the killings were extrajudicial executions and, as such, "cannot be considered an exception to the extradition treaty between the United States and Argentina.”
"The United States is not a safe haven for those legally accused of mass murder abroad, and this court should not shield Bravo from answering to his accusers any longer," Wu said.
The decision is currently in the hands of Federal Judge Edwin Torres, who has no deadline to rule on the matter.
The relatives and victims, while awaiting resolution, subsequently made the decision to file a civil lawsuit. The jury will be asked to determine if Bravo is legally responsible for the massacre and to award compensatory and punitive damages.
The Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), an Argentine human rights group that has assisted the plaintiffs, says the relatives and victims are searching for accountability and reparations.
The NGO said this week that the relatives of the victims have “waited half their lives for justice and that Bravo evaded justice for all that time."
Under the framework of this civil trial, the plaintiffs are seeking economic compensation for the damage that Bravo’s alleged role in the killings caused. Lawyers say, however, that finances are not the reason for the claim.
“What they really want is for Mr Bravo to return to Argentina and face trial,” Krishnan told the court.