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THE ZEIT GIST
Burden of proof impossible to bear
Wrongful convictions are 'shaming' Japan

By DAVID MCNEILL

It may not have been exactly what the government has in mind by the cliche "international cooperation," but dozens of ordinary Japanese folk recently gave up a precious Sunday to help out foreigners in trouble.

The gaijin are locked up in jails around Japan thanks to trials that fell well short of fair and sometimes descended into farce, said a number of speakers at the Symposium to Free Govinda in Waseda University (Nov. 29th).

In at least three of the cases discussed, the accused walked free from district courts only to be rearrested, held illegally for months, and found guilty by higher courts on exactly the same evidence.

"When the judge says 'the defendant is innocent,' the defendant should be free to go. That's common sense in other countries," said Kyohei Imai, a freelance journalist and activist who has spent years trying to get Govinda Prasad Mainali released. "Here it seems to be a message to the prosecution to try harder."

Mainali is perhaps the best known of what the speakers called a growing list of miscarriages of justice involving foreigners in Japan. The fact that his case achieved some notoriety here owes little, say activists, to concerns about civil rights and much more to his alleged victim, Yasuko Watanabe, whose double life as a moonlighting prostitute proved irresistible to the press pack.

Most other cases, including that of Filipino Rosal Villanueva Manalili, who was convicted on the basis of a disputed confession of murdering her Japanese boyfriend, have generated far less interest in the local media.

Two recent cases involving Roberto Tokunaga and Moraga Reyes Alejandro Andres (see box) have been virtually ignored by the Japanese media, said the symposium participants, even though their treatment replicated the failures of the Mainali trial.

Both men were freed by local courts before the prosecution, judge and police decided to have another go, a case of double jeopardy that has important implications for the entire justice system here, said lawyer Kenzo Akiyama: "Putting people who have been declared innocent back in jail sets a dangerous precedent for everyone. That's why I'm involved. And this has become an issue that is affecting our diplomatic relations with other countries. These cases shame Japan abroad."

The main problem, said some, is Japan's top-down justice system. "Japanese judges take the freedom of others very lightly," said Imai. If you look at the U.S., Michael Jackson was released hours after he was arrested on serious charges because they take freedom seriously there. But here, once you're arrested, you're considered guilty. It's a presumption of guilt and goes all the way to the Supreme Court."

Will the current moral panic about crime, fueled by a government report last week that said a record 3.69 million crimes were committed in Japan in 2002, and that "Japanese people are increasingly becoming the victims of foreigners' criminal acts," translate into more miscarriages? Most agreed it would.

"I don't think there's any doubt about that," said lawyer Tsukuda Katsuhiko. It's probably true that crime is on the rise, even by foreigners, but the government isn't doing anything at all to protect the working conditions and rights of foreign workers.

"And then when foreigners do something like overstay their visas, they're thought of as criminals. If these people had secure lives and jobs they wouldn't be out selling counterfeit telephone cards. There isn't a system here for accepting large numbers of legal foreigners so many people find it easy here to blame them for problems."

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All information is Copyright 1997 - 2006 'Foreign Prisoner Support Service' unless stated otherwise - Click here for the legal stuff