Drug-smugglers in Australian prison call for better court-interpreter system

OSAKA — Four Japanese nationals serving lengthy prison terms in Australia will call for an improvement in the court-interpreter system in Japan and abroad when they are granted provisional release in November.

They are planning to lodge their demands through the Japanese government and the United Nations, according to their lawyers, who claim they were victims of erroneous work by language interpreters working for the courts, police and travel agencies in Australia.

The four are among five Japanese from the Kanto region arrested in 1992 for smuggling drugs into Australia.

None of the five, who ranged in age from their 30s to their 70s when they were arrested, spoke much English.

The man who reportedly led the group was sentenced to 20 years in prison, while three other men and one woman were handed 15-year sentences.

The group leader will not be released in November along with the other four.

Shun Tanaka, a member of a group of lawyers supporting the five, argued that they were imprisoned because interpreters in Australia repeatedly made mistakes in translating their comments during police questioning and during court sessions.

Tanaka said, for example, that a court interpreter failed to inform a local court that the defendants were claiming someone had concealed drugs in suitcases they were using and thus brought the drugs into Australia unwittingly.

They said the suitcases were provided for them in Kuala Lumpur after their original suitcases had been stolen and later found badly damaged.

They were arrested in June 1992 at Melbourne airport on charges of attempting to smuggle 13 kg of heroin.

Tanaka, a member of the Osaka Bar Association, has scrutinized taped question-and-answer sessions between authorities and the five that took place via language interpreters.

He said a number of interpreters had failed to properly act as a bridge between investigators and the tourists during questioning.

In this regard, Tanaka specifically targeted one male travel agency guide who spoke neither Japanese nor English fluently.

“The guide kept making erroneous translations and led them (the tourists) into unfavorable situations,” he said.

One investigator, for example, reportedly asked the Japanese tourists who had packed the suitcases.

According to Tanaka, this was translated by the travel agency guide as “Where did the suitcases come from?”

The investigator thus believed the tourists were making inconsistent statements and at one stage even said they were “speaking rubbish” after he was unable to understand the guide’s English, Tanaka said.

Makiko Mizuno, vice chairwoman of the Japan court interpreter association, also analyzed the tapes.

She said countries such as Australia should establish a system under which only certified interpreters are allowed to represent foreign suspects at court sessions and during police questioning.

Masashi Akita, a member of the Osaka Bar Association, warned, however, that Japan is just as guilty as other countries in this respect.

Akita said foreign suspects in Japan have had experiences similar to those of the five Japanese in Australia due to a shortage of interpreters in a number of languages.