Page last updated at 23:42 GMT, Monday, 5 October 2009 00:42 UK

Japan urged to end 'false confessions'


British man talks about his experience in a Japanese prison

By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Tokyo

Hiroshi Yanagihara cannot forget the day he was forced to confess to a crime he did not commit.

A taxi driver, he had been detained on suspicion of attempted rape.

The police interrogation was so relentless, he says, that it brought him to the brink of suicide.

"When I first started saying I was innocent the intimidation and the pressure on me grew stronger," he said.

"They kept saying, 'Your family is giving up on you, they're very disappointed in you.' They kept repeating over and over.

Hiroshi Yanagihara
Mr Yanagihara spent two years in jail for a crime he was later cleared of

"I got to the stage of there's really nothing I can do about this. Anything I say they're not going to listen to, there's nothing I can do. I just said yes, one word yes. That led them to arrest me."

That confession was enough to see Hiroshi Yanagihara convicted and spend more than two years behind bars, even though a footprint at the scene did not match his shoe size.

He was only cleared after he was released, when another man was found guilty of the crime.

His is one of several high-profile cases of forced confessions in Japan.

'King of evidence'

Amnesty International has now called on Japan's new government to immediately implement reforms of the police interrogation system to avoid such miscarriages of justice.

Suspects can be held for up to 23 days before they are charged in what the campaign group says is a brutal system that has no place in modern Japan.

The conviction rate is more than 99%, often based on confessions. Amnesty International says some are extracted from suspects under duress.

In its manifesto the Democratic Party, which won a general election in August, pledged to introduce full videotaping of interrogations.

Japan's courts have a conviction rate of more than 99% - although it cannot be compared directly to other countries because there is no plea bargaining.

At the same time a lot of people would say if you didn't do it why did you say you did?
Keiko Chiba, Japanese Justice Minister

Prosecutors usually proceed with a case only if they are sure they will win and a confession has been called the king of evidence.

"The detainee has absolutely no access to his defence lawyers, has no idea how long the interrogation session would go," said Rajiv Narayan of Amnesty International.

"And this also involves many, many hours of repeated questions and sometimes sleep deprivation, and where the detainee is given the impression he would only be released once he confesses.

"In that kind of system, what's of great concern is the confessions extracted could even be used to sentence a person to death."

Amnesty International says it is impossible to know how many miscarriages of justice there have been.

'Just co-operate'

A British man, who did not want to be named, told the BBC about his experience of police detention in Japan.

"The first thing I was told, and this was by the officers, was you're going to hell with your eyes open," he said.

The man had been caught trying to smuggle two kilograms of cannabis into Japan.

Prisoners in Fuchu prison, Tokyo, return to their cells - 27 May 2003
Japan's justice system has a 99% conviction rate

He admits his guilt, but claims he was interrogated for up to 16 hours a day for weeks on end as officers tried to get him to confess to further crimes.

He says he was handcuffed, tied with a rope to his chair and not allowed to use the toilet.

Every day he was presented with papers in Japanese, which he did not understand, and told to sign them.

Each time he refused, he says, things got worse.

"He says to me, 'Just co-operate and you'll find things will be… just co-operate with him'," the man said.

"He wanted me to agree that I'd brought marijuana to Japan before, I'm in a gang. They started shouting at me. They tried to force me to sign the papers. They put one inmate in my cell and he started to do all the kung fu like he was going to attack me."

Official concern

The police and the Ministry of Justice were unable to respond to these particular allegations because the charity representing the prisoner wants to maintain his anonymity with a view to future compensation.

However, they were prepared to discuss the case of Hiroshi Yanagihara, wrongly convicted of attempted rape.

"Regarding this case the prosecutor's office investigated the problems in August 2007 to prevent it happening again," said Ministry of Justice spokesman Yoshio Nakamura.

"They released the report. And we believe the report will be used in order to prevent it from happening again."

Trial by jury has just been introduced in Japan, and campaigners hope it will cast light on the justice system.

But Amnesty International says this is not enough. They are calling on Japan's new government to immediately fulfil an election pledge to videotape interrogations to stop abuses in police detention.

There is no commitment to reduce the length of time suspects can be held by police.

"Wrongful convictions should not happen, and I hope they won't in the future," said Keiko Chiba, the new minister of justice.

"People in the justice system and politicians knew there was a problem and were concerned.

"But at the same time a lot of people would say if you didn't do it why did you say you did? And they thought there's no way the investigators would do such a thing. That's why it didn't come to changing it as much as it should have done."

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