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Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2003

THE ZEIT GIST

Convicted Briton says he was drug run patsy

Groups claim miscarriage of justice

By David McNeill Most of us can name a time when our lives changed forever, but few can do so as precisely as Nicholas Baker: 11.30 a.m. on April 13, 2002.

The scene is Narita International Airport. The bleary-eyed Baker, on a shopping trip for World Cup souvenirs, has just stumbled through immigration and into the customs area after drinking steadily during the long flight from London.

His traveling companion James Prunier is ahead of him and waiting at the carousel, holding his own suitcase.

What took place in the next few seconds is between the two men, but Baker's version goes like this: Prunier said, "I haven't seen your bag yet, Nick. You grab this and get in a queue and I'll join you when yours comes out."

A minute later, Baker was standing in front of a custom's officer staring down at 41,200 ecstasy tablets and almost a kilogram of cocaine, hidden in the bottom of the case. "At first I didn't know what I was looking at," says Baker. "When I realized what it was, I was numb. I know it was stupid to take his case but my clothes were in it too and I'd no reason to think he was doing anything wrong."

As Baker tried to explain to barely-comprehending officials that the case was his friend's, Prunier was heading for the airport exit.

His bad choice of friends and, supporters say, the failures of the Japanese police and legal system, cost the 32-year-old Englishman a 14-year jail sentence. The verdict stunned most people involved, given that the average sentence for a murder in Japan is 10-12 years.

The easy-going fencing contractor of last year is now an inmate of Chiba Prison, a hollow-eyed man who suffers from recurring headaches and who has lost over 20 kg since that morning last year.

Worst of all, thousands of kilometers separate him from his fiance Beverly and 2-year-old son George.

"Maybe it's better if they don't come over and see me like this," he says, struggling to hold back tears.

Baker's lawyer, Shunji Miyake, believes "100 percent" in Baker's innocence. "Why would a man with a happy home life who earned over £40,000 in the year before his arrest risk it all to smuggle drugs," he asks. "It doesn't make sense."

Nothing unusual of course in a defense lawyer's belief in his client, but Miyake is not alone.

A growing list of people including human rights activists Fair Trials Abroad, and even some of Baker's prison guards, are on his side. A Web site ( www.justicefornickbaker.org/ ) is up and running and a free-Nick petition has been handed to No.10 Downing Street.

One of Baker's most vocal supporters is Baroness Sarah Ludford, a member of the European Parliament and justice spokeswoman for the U.K. Liberal Democrats. "I think he is innocent, but it doesn't matter what I think," she says. "The crucial thing is he didn't have a fair trial. The Japanese courts have to prove his guilt, and in my view, they haven't."

According to Ludford and others, Baker was interrogated for 23 days without access to a lawyer and with poor translators, signed a confession he didn't understand before being placed in solitary confinement for 10 months for refusing to show remorse.

"During interrogation, the lights were on all the time so I couldn't sleep," Baker claims. "I didn't eat for twenty days." The stress of this and lack of contact with the outside world weakened his body.

By the time judge Kenji Kadoya, who has not found a defendant innocent in his ten-year career, delivered his three-hour judgment in Chiba in June this year, Baker was a broken man.

Clearing up the mess left by the Baker case would be easier if the police had recorded their interrogations, and the fact that they did not makes this a "test case," says his lawyer Miyake, who says he and his team will fight on even if their fees, currently paid by Nick's mum, Iris Baker, dry up.

"We have to show that foreign people are entitled to a fair trial in this country, so we are going to try to force the police to always use a tape-recorder, at least when they read out charges, and to properly translate documents for foreign suspects."

Most crucially, the court blocked the strongest card in the defense team's pack: that Baker may well have been duped by a man with an established modus operandi.

James Prunier, who was allowed to leave Japan a few days after Baker's arrest, was caught in Belgium on the May 9, 2002, allegedly attempting a luggage-switching trick with three British travelers. Again the package was ecstasy, this time destined for New Zealand and Australia.

The police officer in charge of the case at Brussels Airport says "It is quite clear Prunier had contacts in Australia and New Zealand, so he must have had contacts in Japan also, and we suspect he was involved in a similar crime in Barcelona. He uses other people." Did he use Nick Baker? "I don't know, but at the very least, it's possible."

None of this all-important information was heard in the Chiba court, and the Belgian police say their Japanese counterparts have never contacted them to specifically discuss Prunier's activities.

Why didn't the police at least question Prunier before he left Japan, and why was his history not explored during Baker's trial? Miyake says it's because the authorities here "are not used to dealing with international crimes," but Ludford is more scathing.

"The police weren't interested in Prunier because they had made up their minds that Baker was their man. And the presumption of innocence is very weak here, so everyone thought he was guilty by then."

These days, as Baker stares at a possible release date of 2017, Prunier has been doing the rounds in the British media, saying he has received death threats from people who believe he is the guilty party, and laying the blame with the man he left behind in Narita last April.

"The idea that I set him up and put somebody in prison, a friend or not a friend, anybody in the world, the thought that I would do that, to me, that is the pits," he said.

But Nick Baker isn't convinced.

"My problem is I'm a trusting guy. We used to help each other out. We knew each other for over three years."

"I'll kill him if I get a hold of him," Baker says.



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