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Dictators and criminals fear this USC instructor who’s making the case for an Oscar

Argentine lawyer Luis Moreno Ocampo, who has framed genocidal rulers and put dictators behind bars, is unsure if Donald Trump should be tried for the January 6 riots.

He believes, of course, that no ruler is above the law. And it’s clear from his comments about the Oath Keepers and their ilk that he’s seen the damning facts piling up against Trump.

But despite his penchant for passionate outbursts – “It’s crazy, it’s insane!” will he exclaim at some outrage or absurdity—Moreno Ocampo is known as a sensible and meticulous compiler of material facts. That is one of the reasons why he was chosen to help establish the International Criminal Court in The Hague and served as Chief Prosecutor for nine years, then taught at Stanford, Harvard, and spent the last three years at at USC

It is also how he became one of the real prosecutors who brought down a violent and criminal Latin American regime, and who are the two main characters in Santiago Mitre’s ‘Argentina 1985’, a finalist for the Oscar for the best international film.

So if he were Merrick Garland, would he allow the 45th US president to take the stand?

“I really should see the evidence,” says Moreno Ocampo, barefoot and reclining in an Eames chair. “The problem is not about Trump. The problem is, who is supporting the mob’s uprising against Congress today?”

It’s the last day of January, and just beyond the outdoor terrace of a clifftop condo, the Pacific Ocean glistens like sheet metal. The atmosphere is chic Malibu casual, but it talks about crimes against humanity, an Argentine “dirty war” that left thousands dead and tens of thousands “disappeared,” and a trial 38 years ago that exemplified to the world how to make despots pay for their crimes.

Ricardo Darín, left, and Peter Lanzani play real-life prosecutors Julio César Strassera and Luis Moreno Ocampo, respectively, who try to bring a criminal military junta to justice in the Oscar-nominated “Argentina 1985.”

(La Unión de los Ríos & Kenya Films & Infinity Hill & Amazon Studios)

In the early 1980s, Moreno Ocampo was not an urbane 70-year-old man of the world, but a young, very green lawyer who had never prosecuted a single case.

He was an unlikely choice as co-counsel for Julio César Strassera, the esteemed veteran attorney who collected the gruesome evidence against Lieutenant General Jorge Rafael Videla, adm. Emilio Eduardo Massera, Brigadier General. Orlando Ramón Agosti and other accomplices of the Argentine military junta that overthrew President Isabel Perón in a 1976 coup and then imposed a seven-year reign of terror on their nation.

As the film dramatizes, Strassera (played by Ricardo Darín) thought Moreno Ocampo’s (Peter Lanzani) relative inexperience was actually an asset. There was no precedent for such a dangerous and consequential legal undertaking, so it would take a bold, creative approach to put the case together – a flair for innovation and improvisation that Strassera glimpsed in his young associate.

Moreno Ocampo recalls: “Julio said, ‘We have the flexibility to figure something out here, because the police can’t investigate this crime — they were involved in the crimes. And the system is so slow, and I only have four months. So you conduct the investigation. Invent something!”

It is not the first time that Moreno Ocampo shows a laugh that is somewhere between cackling and laughter. gag reflex – which may seem surprising to a man who has stared so long and hard into the abyss: digging into the genocide in Darfur; investigation of Libyan dictator Moammar Qadafi for crimes against humanity; exposing the brutality of Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose tactics as they rampaged through four African nations included mutilation and child sex slavery. In his book, “War and Justice in the 21st Century: A Case Study on the International Criminal Court and its Interaction With the War on Terror,” published last November, he provides an insider’s view of his experience.

Kal Raustiala, a UCLA Law School professor who has known Moreno Ocampo since they both taught at Harvard Law School, says the qualities his friend displayed in crafting the case against the Argentine junta served him well in setting up the prosecutor’s office of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Netherlands when it was established in the late 1990s and early 2000s. It remains the first and only permanent international body authorized to prosecute individuals for genocide, war crimes, crimes of aggression and crimes against humanity.

“Nobody knew what this grandstand would look like, whether it would be a total failure or a resounding success,” says Raustiala. “His audacity and his willingness to take that kind of risk is probably the most striking thing about him.”

Today, Moreno Ocampo explores international justice not in the courtroom but in the USC classroom, where he often collaborates with colleague Ted Braun, a filmmaker whose “Darfur Now” features Moreno Ocampo prominently in his ICC role. They tag a class on “War, Justice and Global Narratives in the 21st Century,” using celluloid texts such as “The Battle of Algiers,” “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “The Act of Killing,” and “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith” to analyze, among other things, the morality of state-sanctioned violence and the rhetorical ambiguities of revolutionary “terrorism.”

In one class, Braun and Moreon Ocampo led their students in deconstructing the legal distinction between “enemy” and “criminal” combatants as it applies to Mace Windu, Anakin Skywalker, and the crew.

“We had a very heated discussion with the students about the legal status of the Jedi,” says Braun, who encouraged his friend to make the jump from Harvard to Southern California. Moreno Ocampo has “an enormous imaginative range, the ability to create and think across disciplines and boundaries and see the destination and be willing to find a new way to get there,” adds Braun. “It’s like playing soccer with Messi.”

Moreno Ocampo believes that film and other mass media are indispensable tools in shaping and interpreting history. His reverence for Steven Spielberg films such as ‘Saving Private Ryan’, ‘Lincoln’ and ‘Munich’ borders on the religious.

“Spielberg is Shakespeare to me,” he says. “Spielberg is an actor in American life because he defines stories. The main American weapon is not the Pentagon. It’s Hollywood.”

Luis Moreno Ocampo, illuminated by warm sunset light, sits on the railing of a patio and looks to his right.  Calm sea is behind.

International Prosecutor and USC Instructor Luis Moreno Ocampo last week at his home in Malibu.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Another USC colleague, Viet Thanh Nguyen, who fled Vietnam with his family, has written, “You do your wars twice: first on the battlefield, then in memory.” Moreno Ocampo agrees, pointing out that his own book about the Argentina trial has sold about 10,000 copies, while Amazon’s “Argentina 1985” will be seen by millions.

“The film spans 40 years and reaches out to a new generation with the same message,” he says. “My youngest child is 23, he had no idea what was happening. Now he learns with the film.

Miter, the director of ‘Argentina 1985’, who was 4 years old when the real trial took place, credits Moreno Ocampo’s insights for improving the film’s authenticity and accuracy.

“I was afraid of Luis at first,” Miter says with a laugh. “He’s an icon. And Luis has very strong opinions (about) where he thought I should go. So it was really nice, our first meeting, because I wanted to ask him questions about the process and he was the one who questioned me. ”

For his part, Moreno Ocampo attributes the film’s verisimilitude to Miter and Argentine producer Victoria Alonso, who “understand very well these John Ford films about justice”.

“All the court scenes are absolutely verbatim,” says Moreno Ocampo. “But they also presented the context, through the (victim) families, in a very clever way.”

A true porteno (port town person), the nickname given to the citizens of Buenos Aires, Moreno Ocampo is zealous for football and literature. He flew back to the capital in December to watch Argentina win the World Cup final with his children. A poster of ‘Argentina 1985’ leans against the white walls of his stylish bachelor pad. Part of Borges is on the coffee table.

“Borges is a genius,” says Moreno Ocampo, adding an expletive, who served as legal counsel to another Argentine (expletive) genius, Diego Maradona, the football superestrella.

“I knew Maradona very well. He was an artist. He was so poor. And then he became the most famous person in the world – from a person full of boundaries to no boundaries. So he went crazy. But when I met him, he was a beautiful, sweet boy.

To outsiders, Argentina may seem like a Borgesian amusement park of mazes and mirrors, ruled by Peronist populists and their glamorous husbands turned into Broadway musicals. But the junta turned it into a horror house with their devilishly inventive catalog of crimes.

Children of left-wing parents were kidnapped and given up for adoption to supporters of the dictatorship. Civilians branded as subversives were stripped naked, drugged and thrown from airplanes into the Río de la Plata. “Argentina 1985” tells the factual testimony of a terrified pregnant woman who went into spontaneous labor after being thrown into the back of a police car.

For Moreno Ocampo, the politics of the dirty war were personal and familial. His grandfather was a general and his mother’s two brothers were colonels, one of whom visited General Videla in prison during the trial to apologize for his cousin’s behavior and promise never to speak to Moreno Ocampo again. He kept his word.

“I betrayed him, I betrayed the family, I betrayed the army!” says Moreno Ocampo, delighted by the anecdote. But he eventually persuaded his mother, who, like many conservative Argentines, had applauded the junta for apparently bringing “order” to a chaotic country.

“It is true what the film shows, that my mother changed after she read about the witness who had the baby in the police car. She called me and she said, “I still love General Videla, but you’re right. He needs to go to jail.’ And that was a huge thing for me.

Argentina has won the international film Oscar twice before, for “The Official Story” (1985) and “The Secret in Their Eyes” (El secreto de sus ojos) (2009), which also starred Darín, making it the first South American country to win that award twice. Both films are also about the legacy of the dirty war. “The Official Story” is about a middle-class Buenos Aires couple who realize that their illegally adopted child may have been born to one of the desaparecidas.

Moreno Ocampo saw it depicted in “Argentina 1985” while working on the process.

“I never cried when I looked for the evidence. I’ve seen terrible things – I’ve never cried. But I cried at the movie. Because without my professional protection, the film invaded me.”

He will attend the Oscars on March 12. If Argentina wins for the third time, he says, it’s as good as Maradona or Messi scoring three goals in a match.

“A hat trick,” he says.