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     Jun 30, 2012

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.

Now, after his release, Japanese media are swarming him in Nepal, and foreign residents in Japan are calling for justice and equality.

Mainali, 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 system.

"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.

Gopal 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".

Japan's daily Nikkan Gendai called prosecutors "sore losers". "Saving face is more important to the prosecution than human rights," it said.

Even 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.

The conservative 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 the killer."

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 Nepal."

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.

It's 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 one-way flights.

Tokyo-based freelancer Christopher Johnson, author of Siamese Dreams, has been contributing to Asia Times for more than a decade.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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