Wrongful conviction puts
spotlight on Japanese
justice By Christopher Johnson
For 15 years, Govinda Mainali dwelt in
regimented Japanese prisons, wrongfully convicted
of murder, and largely ignored by Japanese media
and foreigners who knew little about a justice
system stacked against suspects.
after his release, Japanese media are swarming him
in Nepal, and foreign residents in Japan are
calling for justice and equality.
45, has said little about his ordeal following the
1997 death of a female employee of Tokyo Electric
Power Co (TEPCO), which operates the damaged
Fukushima nuclear reactors. "I'm sad for having
been forced to spend 15 years in prison, despite
being innocent," he told
about 100 reporters at Kathmandu International
Airport this month.
His brother Indra told
reporters in Nepal that Mainali, disoriented and
meeting his wife and children for the first time
in 18 years, would have to learn how to use
computers and mobile phones. Besieged by Japanese
reporters, Mainali, who still likes Japanese food,
sneaked out of a Kathmandu home last week to buy a
Sony television. Activists and commentators,
meanwhile, are demanding that Japanese authorities
compensate Mainali and overhaul the justice
"The Mainali case is proof once
again that there are two systems of justice in
Japan: one for Japanese, one for foreigners,"
Debito Arudou, a US-born academic who became a
Japanese citizen and rights activist, said in an
interview. "Once the public prosecutor has a
foreigner in his grip, that means indefinite
incarceration without habeas corpus or bail. Even
if judged innocent in court, prosecutors usually
appeal and foreigners are still jailed."
The Tokyo High Court ordered a retrial and
release of Mainali on June 7, saying fresh DNA
evidence proved that semen and hair at the 1997
crime scene were not his. Though he was released
from a Yokohama prison, immigration officials
detained and deported him on a visa-overstay
charge - a move meant to deter him from seeking
compensation, rights activists say.
Krishna Siwakoti, a Nepali human-rights activist,
called the case the "trial of the century in terms
of migrant workers", and an example of how a
"xenophobic attitude was entrenched in the
Japanese judicial system".
Nikkan Gendai called prosecutors "sore losers".
"Saving face is more important to the prosecution
than human rights," it said.
so-called Japan apologists have spoken out against
induced confessions and the harsh imprisonment and
costly deportation of more than 100,000 foreigners
over the past decade.
"The fact is that a
foreigner falling afoul of the Japanese legal
system doesn't have a hope in hell of getting a
fair trial," leading foreign businessman Terrie
Lloyd wrote in his conservative business magazine
Japan Inc. "Through seemingly innocent
circumstances we could just as easily be caught up
in a similar situation. Reading about his case
makes you feel like we're living in an emerging
economy in the Middle East rather than a First
World country like Japan."
At a Tokyo
press conference last week, Justice Minister
Makoto Taki denied that authorities and guards
mistreated Mainali in jail. He did not say whether
Japan would order Mainali to return for a retrial.
Japan and Nepal do not have an extradition treaty.
Mainali, who lived near the murder scene,
was arrested in 1997 for overstaying his student
visa by three years to work at an Indian
restaurant in Tokyo's Shibuya entertainment
district. While in detention, police charged him
with murdering Yasuko Watanabe, 39. Japanese media
say she was from a prestigious family and Keio
University, a well-paid economist with TEPCO by
day and prostitute by night. Her body was
discovered 11 days after strangulation. Several
websites have accused TEPCO of silencing her and
scapegoating Mainali. TEPCO has not commented
publicly on the case.
Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan's largest daily, has
criticized police and prosecutors for targeting a
foreigner. "Two days after a woman was found dead
in an apartment on March 19, 1997, Tomihiko
Hirata, then chief of the Metropolitan Police
Department's first investigative division, wrote
in his diary, 'A Nepalese man who lives in a
neighboring building should be found guilty with
the circumstantial evidence we have collected.'"
The Yomiuri said investigators became
excited when they heard that Mainali had "grinned"
during questioning. "We thought he had
unconsciously allowed himself to relax when he
learned he wasn't being arrested on a murder
charge," an investigator said. "We believed we had
Charles McJilton, a
Tokyo-based Christian missionary from Minnesota
who has visited about 50 foreign prisoners in
Japan since the 1990s, says Mainali, like other
foreign suspects, didn't have a lawyer or proper
interpreter. "It was him against all the police
and prosecutors. She worked for TEPCO, was
controversial because she was a prostitute at
night, and the police felt they had to get a
conviction. They probably believed he would
confess to it eventually, but he didn't."
Judges, expected to affirm guilt, "put
their careers on the line by handing him a
not-guilty verdict the first time", he said in a
phone interview. "Though he was still detained on
his visa-overstay charge, Mainali felt relieved,
and he thought he was going to be deported back to
But prosecutors kept Mainali
incarcerated on the overstay charge, and later won
their appeal in December 2000 on the murder
charge. "Within six months, based on the same
evidence, he was found guilty," McJilton said.
Activists say 99% of foreign suspects are
held in custody and denied bail, compared with 76%
of Japanese. "It's not a system of innocence until
proven guilty. If you appear in court, you are
supposed to show remorse and take responsibility
for the crime," McJilton said. "One of the judges
said: 'I looked into his eyes, and I knew that he
had done it.'"
Mainali's former roommate,
Narendra Kumar Khadka, 42, told a Kyodo News
reporter in Nepal last week that police coerced
him to sign a false statement saying Mainali
murdered the woman to rob her and repay a debt.
Khadka said he was illegally detained for about 20
days at a police station in Tokyo, another 45 days
at a Tokyo detention center, and another 20 days
by immigration authorities who deported him. He
said he was often interrogated for 10 hours a day.
"Japan is a big country and has big
influence in Nepal. So if I anger Japanese
authorities, I could get into trouble even if I
live in my own country," Khadka said, adding that
Japanese investigators had visited him "many
times" in Nepal, according to Kyodo.
not clear if Mainali will seek compensation or
legal action against police, prosecutors and
judges. The government reportedly paid 80 million
yen (about US$1 million) to Toshikazu Kasuga, a
Japanese man jailed for 17 years on a murder
conviction until acquitted in 2010.
Mainali said he kept journals in jail to
expose mistreatment of incarcerated foreigners. As
Asia Times Online reported earlier this year,
Japan only accepts about 30 refugees per year,
while detaining thousands of asylum seekers and
expatriate workers in special detention centers,
including windowless holding cells under Narita
International Airport. Detainees often have to pay
for their own deportation costs, a windfall for
airlines that charge exorbitant amounts for
Christopher Johnson, author of Siamese
Dreams, has been contributing to Asia Times for
more than a decade.
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