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Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2007

THE ZEIT GIST

Dispute over police actions compounds traffic tragedy

Michael Laws has seen Japan at its worst -- and best -- since he was involved in a fatal traffic accident


Special to The Japan Times

On March 25 last year, Michael Laws was driving a minivan full of children for an English-language playschool in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, when he hit a scooter. The rider was another foreigner, Patrick Alford, who died at the scene.

Michael Laws
Australian Michael Laws stands at the spot of the accident in Saitama Prefecture that claimed the life of Patrick Alford. DAVID McNEILL PHOTO

According to Laws, Alford was trying to pass him on the inside of a narrow road when he suddenly pulled out in front of the minivan. The police would later argue that Alford was in front of Laws for 650 meters before the crash and that Laws had been negligent.

An accident involving one foreigner -- let alone two -- in this dull suburban area is rare and likely to generate a lot of extra work. The local police seemed determined to clear the case quickly, says Laws, who claims they failed to investigate the site, test him for alcohol or interview the children.

But all this changed after the victim's Japanese father-in-law made an emotional appeal at the station, demanding that the police take action.

After being questioned, the Australian national was allowed home but was rearrested the following day and held until Aug. 3 -- a detention of over four months, during which he claims he was deprived of sleep and forced to fingerprint a statement he didn't understand.

"For the first 3-4 weeks I was woken up constantly," says Laws, now out on bail and awaiting judgment. "The other prisoners said I was snoring but those complaints stopped when the interrogations ended, so I can only imagine that the police had something to do with it."

Long detentions and interrogations are common in Japan -- whatever the nationality. "This is surely one of the very few democratic countries where the police can detain someone for four months after a traffic accident," says Lawrence Repeta of Omiya Law School. Repeta says such detentions reflect the unequal standing in Japan between defense lawyers and prosecutors. "The practice is truly pre-modern."

Was foreignness a factor in the case? Laws speaks conversational Japanese but wasn't confident that he could follow the technical language of police reports. He claims that he was initially refused an interpreter or a duty lawyer. The crash report initially said that Laws accepted Alford's bike was in front of the minivan and could not have passed on the inside -- the crux of the accident. Laws disputes this.

He says he was eventually allowed an interpreter on April 4, two weeks after his arrest, but the person provided was "difficult to understand." The fact that he was denied an interpreter and lawyer for so long proves the police were "only interested in getting the gaijin," says Laws. "They made up their story and wouldn't listen to me about the facts of the accident. I was very upset but they just kept shouting at me, making the situation worse."

Lawyers for both sides have declined to comment on the case while it is ongoing. However, a spokesman for Saitama Prefectural Police Department claims that Laws did have an interpreter throughout his interrogation and that the police called the Australian Embassy after his detention. Furthermore, he said the police department "respects human rights" and there is no question that the police tortured Laws or denied him sleep.

Similar disputes involving the detention of foreign nationals occur frequently in Japan and could be solved by taping police interviews, a practice called for by the National Bar Association but opposed by the Police Federation. "Foreigners are often asked to sign a statement that they can't read or understand," says Chris Pitts, a rights activist and lecturer at Kyoritsu Joshi University.

Laws was subsequently charged with professional negligence resulting in death and could have remained in detention for months or worse while the case crawled through the courts. But in a remarkable act of generosity, the parents of a five-year-old student of his stumped up the 2 million yen bail money.

"He was a kind, serious teacher and our daughter liked him," says the mother. "She made great progress in a year and we trusted Michael. So when we heard about his accident we knew he had nobody to help him. We thought about how hard it would be in his situation."

The woman says she knows the police behave badly. "I could believe that they didn't let him have a translator and shouted at him in Japanese that he didn't understand." The couple will lose their bond money if Michael flees but they say they know he won't leave the country. "Michael is a good man."

Then another act of kindness: Michael's employer, Coco Nakabayashi, kept his job at the small playschool along with the apartment she rented to him, despite the huge inconvenience of the investigation. More than 10 months after the accident, for example, the police are still impounding the minivan.

"I had to buy a new one for the children which cost a lot of money," she says. "It has been dreadful, but he worked for me and the accident happened while he was working so I feel I'm responsible too. He has been sincere and the children like him and I feel it was just an accident. He didn't mean for this to happen."

She adds: "From the start, they treated him as having done something very wrong because he was a foreigner. They should treat foreigners and Japanese the same way."

The support has boosted Michael's confidence. Last month he went back to the accident site with a video camera to prove wrong the police assertion that bikes could not pass cars on the inside of the narrow road. "I caught it happening 56 times," he says. He will present the evidence at his next hearing on March 23.

In the meantime, he has tried to write an apology in Japanese to the wife -- Tomoko Goto -- of the man he killed, but his lawyers have so far vetoed it because they feel it might be "misconstrued." Apologies, if judged sincere, are very important here but must be carefully expressed or can do more harm than good.

Meanwhile, Laws' last hearing appeared to go well. The judge said he had so far seen no evidence supporting the charges against Laws, and the prosecutors asked for three months to prepare evidence; a sign that they may be unsure of their case. But with no jury and a criminal system that is stacked heavily against the defense, there is no way of telling what way the cards will fall.

"All I'm looking for is due process," says Laws. "If I did anything wrong, I'll accept it."

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