UN body attacks Japan’s justice system

A United Nations committee has castigated Japan’s criminal justice and prison system, listing a wide range of problems including the lack of an independent judiciary, an extremely low rate of acquittal and human rights abuses among detainees.

The UN Committee Against Torture takes a broad interpretation of its brief, criticising the state’s physical treatment of citizens and the fairness of the justice system.

The report comes at an embarrassing time for Japan. The government has been trying to restore the country’s status as a nation with the moral and political authority of a world power, in addition to an economic powerhouse. Shinzo Abe has tried to accelerate this process since he became prime minister since last year, but with mixed results.

In an 11-page report completed last week, scarcely any part of the system escapes criticism. For example, it raises suspicions over a “disproportionately high number of convictions over acquittals”. There were only 63 acquittals in the year to March 2006, compared with 77,297 convictions, among criminal cases that had reached court, according to Japan’s Supreme Court.

In a version of the report released in Tokyo on Monday and described as “advanced unedited” [sic], the committee links the high conviction rate to the state’s emphasis on securing confessions before trial.

It cites fears about “the lack of means to verify the proper conduct of detainees while in police custody”, in particular “the absence of strict time limits for the duration of interrogations and the absence of mandatory presence of defence counsel”.

Parts of the law relating to inmates on death row “could amount to torture”, it says, criticising the “psychological strain imposed upon inmates and families” by the fact that “prisoners are notified of their execution only hours before it is due to take place”.

The committee also “is concerned about the insufficient level of independence of the judiciary”.

It attacks Japan’s dismissal of cases filed by “comfort women”, who were forced to work in military-run brothels during the war, on the grounds that the cases have passed the country’s statute of limitations.

The report, written after an 18-day session of the committee in Geneva, asks the Japanese government to consider a slew of measures, including “an immediate moratorium on executions”.

The committee issued its attack after receiving a report from the Japanese government on its efforts to prevent human rights abuses. All UN member states must submit such reports regularly, although the UN Committee scolds Japan for filing its report “over five years late”.

The committee’s findings are in line with complaints by human rights lawyers. But the report has attracted controversy within the UN.

Keiichi Aizawa, director of the Japan-based United Nations Asia and Far East Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, told the Financial Times: “The treatment of offenders in Japan is fair.”

Japan’s Justice Ministry declined to comment.

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