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Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2005

Court splits on Hansen's compensation

Taiwanese win while Koreans are denied By MASAMI ITO Staff writer


Staff writer

Judges were split Tuesday on two lawsuits filed by former Hansen's disease patients from South Korea and Taiwan -- the South Korean patients were denied compensation while the Taiwanese were awarded it.

News photo
Plaintiffs from Taiwan and their supporters head toward the Tokyo District Court on Tuesday morning.

In a suit filed by one-time Hansen's disease patients from South Korea, the Tokyo District Court upheld the decision by the health ministry to reject their demand for compensation over the government's past policy of segregating Hansen's patients.

In a separate ruling 30 minutes later, however, a different judge from the same court revoked the administrative decision and ruled that the government must pay compensation to former Hansen's patients from Taiwan.

The segregation policy was declared illegal in May 2001 by the Kumamoto District Court. One month later a compensation law was enacted, stating that the government must provide 8 million yen to 14 million yen in compensation to segregated patients who applied within five years after the law went into effect.

The amount of compensation is determined by how long the former patients were segregated under the Leprosy Prevention Law, which was abolished in 1996.

The first group of plaintiffs filed a lawsuit in August 2004 after their demand for compensation was rejected by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. Since then, a total of 117 South Korean former Hansen's patients have joined the suit.

In December 2004, meanwhile, 25 Taiwanese former patients also filed a lawsuit over rejections they received from the ministry.

The health ministry maintained that while the nationality or residence of the former patient does not matter, the compensation law does not cover Japan's former colonies such as South Korea and Taiwan.

The law does not specify whether sanitariums outside Japan fall under its provisions.

In rejecting the compensation demand from former South Korean patients, presiding Judge Toshihiko Tsuruoka ruled that the Diet deliberations that took place while establishing the compensation law shows that the law was expected to cover all people who were institutionalized in sanitariums in Japan.

But the only mention of former patients outside Japan left the issue to be solved in the future, and therefore neither the lawmakers in the Diet nor those who established the law had such former patients in mind during the deliberations, Tsuruoka said.

"It would be difficult to say that the law specifically excluded patients in institutions outside Japan," he said. "But it is also obvious that there is no ground (for concluding) that the law includes such people."

He added, however, that it cannot be denied that those institutionalized outside Japan were also subject to discrimination because of the government's segregation policy at home, and that there is room for consideration to give compensation to such former patients as well.

In a separate ruling on former Hansen's disease patients from Taiwan, presiding Judge Hiroyuki Kanno stressed that simply because there is a possibility that those involved in legislating the compensation law did not expect former patients from outside Japan to seek compensation, it is not reasonable to ignore rules of equality and limit the interpretation of who the law applies to.

Kanno thus ruled that it was illegal for the Japanese government to deny Taiwanese former Hansen's patients compensation and that the compensation law should be widely applied.

"This is not just compensation for damages or loss," Kanno stated. It should be considered "a special type of compensation to heal the physical and emotional scars of people who were placed in Hansen's disease institutions, as well as to ensure a peaceful life for their futures."

The South Korean plaintiffs plan to appeal the verdict, while the South Korean and Taiwanese plaintiffs, their lawyers and supporters will request the health ministry to abandon an appeal on the Taiwanese patients' ruling.

At a news conference held after the two rulings, the plaintiffs' lawyers spoke of their mixed emotions.

Regarding the Taiwanese patients' verdict, the court "acknowledged historical facts and it was a fair ruling that properly applied the compensation law," said attorney Naoko Kunimune. But she condemned the South Koreans' verdict.

Jang Gi Jin, a South Korean plaintiff, expressed disappointment.

"There are no words to express my sadness," said the 84-year-old. "I cannot understand how one court can hand down two different verdicts for very similar victims which resulted in one side smiling and the other side crying."

Jang also expressed concern over the fact that all of the plaintiffs from South Korea are very old, in their 80s and 90s.

"I want to be able to present a result that will have (us) smiling before (the plaintiffs) die," he said, stressing he will not give up until he sees victory.



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