Practice lab students support judicial system and criminal code reform in Peru

May 15, 2013

Professor Michael NewtonFirst, practice lab students led by Michael A. Newton, professor of the practice of law, who teaches Vanderbilt’s International Law Practice Lab, contributed to efforts to convict former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori for his failure to prevent extrajudicial killings committed by those under his command. Students in Newton’s Practice Lab course drafted a 100-page opinion later submitted as an amicus brief that supported the successful prosecution of Fujimori in 2008-09.

Fujimori’s conviction for directing the killings of 25 people in 2009, which came after a 15-month trial, was the first time a democratically elected Latin American leader was found guilty of human rights abuses in his own country. In 2010, Peru’s Supreme Court upheld Fujimori’s 25-year sentence for ordering security forces to carry out killings and kidnappings–one of four sentences the former Peruvian president received for human rights violations.

Now Newton, with the support of Practice Lab students, is working with members of the Peruvian high courts to support their efforts to hold lower level commanders responsible for committing killings and kidnappings on Fujimori’s orders. “Efforts to hold lower level commanders responsible for countless forced disappearances have been stymied in Peruvian courts due to misunderstandings regarding the doctrine of command responsibility,” stated Brittany Benowitz, chief counsel for the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights.

An expert in international criminal law and the law of war, Newton worked with members of Peru’s Supreme Court and its National Penal Court to provide comprehensive advice on the evidence needed to sustain charges based on the theory of command responsibility and the complex body of underlying criminal law. “This outreach was organized under the auspices of the Peruvian Supreme Court, but it would not have been possible without the assistance of Professor Newton, who has a unique expertise litigating high-level cases of command responsibility,” Benowitz said.

The discussions that Newton led were a follow-up to a series of Practice Lab projects Vanderbilt Law students completed during 2012-13 to support judicial and criminal code reforms in Peru. “For several years, Practice Lab students have supported ongoing judicial system reforms in Peru with various projects, including an amicus brief we are filing in the InterAmerican Commission of Human Rights,” Newton said. “Peru is facing a wave of difficult human rights cases as a result of the Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, terrorism of the 1990s, and its government is also in the midst of reforming the country’s criminal code to move toward an adversarial model. We’ve been asked to work with the Peruvian courts to develop a broader outreach and education program for lower level judges.”

The recent efforts to support the work of Peruvian judges are based on an analysis by Molly Hall ’13, as well as a project by Jean O’Friel Quigley ’13 and a Peruvian student, Silvia Leon Galdos, LL.M. ’13.  Newton and his Practice Lab students will continue working with the ABA’s Center for Human Rights on pending cases concerning the rights of indigenous persons in Peru and the application of humanitarian law to social protests. “The students of the Practice Lab who have participated in this work have had an opportunity to engage directly in cutting edge human rights issues,” Benowitz said.

Newton will return to Peru during the 2013-14 academic year at the request of its Supreme Court to offer additional consulting support to its judiciary.