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Sunday, Jan. 27, 2008


'Justice' Japanese style

Special to The Japan Times

Even in a culture that frowns on displays of extreme emotion, Hiroshi Yanagihara cannot suppress his rage. The state falsely accused him of rape, imprisoned him for two years and then freed him with the odd words of Judge Satoshi Fujita ringing in his years.

Takao Sugiyama, who spent 29 years in prison following a 'forced' confessiono
Takao Sugiyama, who spent 29 years in prison following a "forced" confession DAVID McNEILL PHOTO

"I hope the rest of his life will be meaningful," said Fujita following a rare retrial at the Takaoka Branch of Toyama District Court.

While languishing in Fukui Prison, Yanagihara lost his job and his father, who died alone.

"The judge's not-my-problem attitude made me sick," Yanagihara said after the verdict.

In April 2002, following two rape incidents in Himi, Toyama Prefecture, the then 40-year-old taxi driver was picked from a set of photos by one of the victims after a colleague at his taxi company contacted police to say that an artist's impression of the suspect they had released appeared to resemble Yanagihara.

Convinced they had their man, the police ignored the lack of supporting evidence and pressed hard for a confession.

Yanagihara had a plausible alibi, there were no fingerprints at the scene and he wore shoes smaller than the footprints left behind by the rapist.

But after three days in custody during which police reportedly used a photograph of his dead mother to shame him, saying she would want him to own up, Yanagihara "confessed." Despite later retracting his statement, he was sentenced to three years' imprisonment in November 2002.

He was exonerated by Judge Fujita last October — only after the real rapist confessed.

Yanagihara was luckier than Takao Sugiyama, who spent 29 years in prison for a robbery/murder he insists he didn't commit. Now free on conditional release, the 60-year-old must notify the police of every major life change, and will return to jail until he dies if he commits another crime.

Last year, he had to apply to both the justice and foreign ministries for special permission to leave the country and speak to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland about the system of detention and trial that robbed him of half his life.

"The people I talked to in Switzerland taught me a little English," he recalls, laughing bitterly at the memory. "Crazy Japan."

In official comments published last May, the U.N.'s Committee on Torture unleashed withering criticism of Japan's treatment of people under arrest, singling out the extended detention of suspects in local jails known as daiyo kangoku (substitute prisons). In practice, these are the police-station cells in which suspects are incarcerated while detectives question them.

Interrogations and detentions can last up to 23 days without habeas corpus coming into play, meaning there is no requirement before then for suspects to be brought before a court to decide the legality of their detention. In extreme cases, such detentions can stretch into months, in what some critics have called "pretrial punishment."

Forced signed confessions, still considered the "king of evidence" by Japanese courts, are often the result.

Detention in police jails (rather than separate detention facilities controlled not by the police but by the Ministry of Justice), "coupled with insufficient procedural guarantees for the detention and interrogation of detainees, increases the possibilities of abuse of their rights, and may lead to a de facto nonrespect of the principles of presumption of innocence, right to silence and right of defense," said the U.N. committee.

In other words, the police can ignore the most basic legal protections of the Constitution.

The Justice Ministry called the committee's dismal report card "disappointing." However, those U.N. comments echo earlier reports by the Japan Bar Association, Human Rights Watch, the International Bar Association and other U.N. panels that say Japan's treatment of criminal suspects is unfair and leads to coerced confessions.

In about 99 percent of criminal trials in Japan, defendants are found guilty; and in the bulk of cases, the defendant has confessed to charges.

After three weeks, during which suspects often allege psychological and sometimes physical abuse, requests for release on bail can be denied. Lawyers are not allowed during interrogations.

Critics acknowledge that the police are mostly thorough, the legal machine functions efficiently in the majority of cases and that ultimately Japan incarcerates people at a far lower rate than most developed countries. But they say the damning U.N. report has finally focused minds here on something known by defense lawyers for years: the system is open to horrendous abuse.

That system recently came under brief but intense scrutiny during a bizarre case of alleged vote-buying in Kagoshima, Kyushu, after police arrested and falsely accused 13 men and women of rigging a local election.

Pages of elaborately detailed and completely fabricated confessions were produced in court. However, these products of what presiding judge Toshiyuki Tani called "marathon" interrogation sessions were tossed out by him as he acquitted the defendants.

Shinichi Nakayama, 61, the politician accused of plying voters with ¥1.91 million in cash and booze, says he still cannot believe what happened.

"I was tempted to admit the charge only once, when chief detective (Nobukazu) Isobe told me that my wife had owned up," recalls Nakayama, who spent 395 days in jail (his wife was held in a separate station and released after 273 days).

Nakayama says he went to the local police station voluntarily but was then taken for interrogation to Kogoshima, protesting his innocence all the way.

"The detective said, 'If you admit the crime, we'll release your wife straight away.' I considered her health and actually said, 'Yes, I did it.' " But during a lunchtime chat with his lawyer, he discovered the police were lying.

"I was weaker than my wife. After our release, I was so grateful to her," he says.

One defendant died during the ordeal and another tried to commit suicide. Nakayama was awarded ¥12,500 for each day he spent in jail, but says only an impartial investigation into police procedures and the background to the case will compensate. So far, and despite a collective legal campaign by the former defendants, that investigation has stalled. Inspector Isobe was admonished, another officer had a three-month salary cut imposed; and the station chief was let off with a warning.

Defense lawyers in Yanagihara's Toyama rape retrial fared worse. Demands that the police be asked to explain their conduct were rejected by the judge, "destroying" (said The Japan Times at the time) any hope of examining the background or making sure that his was the last such case.


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