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Hidden plight of detainees

by Catherine Makino

‘What did I do to the Japanese people,” asks Merdem Yousif. “I came to Japan because I thought the people would be warm-hearted. It was my big mistake. I should have gone to another country.”

The 34-year-old Kurdish man, wheelchair-bound as a result of abuse he claims he suffered at the hands of guards, has been locked up in the Ushiku Detention Center in Ibaraki Prefecture for the past year while waiting for his application for political asylum to be processed.

But instead of getting the asylum applied for eight years ago, he now finds himself in legal limbo. Worse, he calls the detention center “the same as prison.”

When he submitted his first application, it was denied. He appealed against the first decision, but again his appeal was denied by the Ministry of Justice. Finally, he took his case to the Tokyo District Court for juridical review. His case is now before that court.

Uncertainty

Merdem and his lawyers are not even sure why he is being detained. He was first incarcerated at the Tokyo Immigration Center in Shinagawa on May 12, 2003, and later transferred to Ushiku in September.

Attorney Noriko Watanabe, says she has submitted enough documentation to support Merdem’s plea for asylum, and thinks it seems reasonable that he should at least have been granted temporary refuge while his case was being processed.

Instead, Watanabe says, “he was suddenly detained without any warning or clear explanation. He needs to be on the outside, furthermore, so he can gather more information for his case. There’s no excuse for holding people in detention, as some are, for years.”

Merdem’s deep, green eyes are glazed over from the drugs he takes for depression, back pain and for help getting to sleep. He says his back pain was minor at the time of his detention, but that abuse by the detention center’s guards made it much worse.

“It happened on April 2, 2003 when I was standing in the hall,” he said recently. “The officer in charge ordered several officers to put me back in my room, and they rushed toward me. They seized me, then they smashed me between the door and the wall.

“I yelled ‘stop it, I’m sick,’ but they wouldn’t stop. I was pushed to the ground, and then they dragged me into somebody else’s cell.

“Then I had such excruciating pain in my back, they had to take me to the hospital. Since then, I’ve been in a wheelchair.”

Merdem grimaces in pain at the memory. “Why can’t the Japanese treat me as a human being?” he says.

Merdem is clearly no criminal; indeed his former employer in the construction business is now acting as his guarantor.

And his case is garnering widespread support.

Eri Ishikawa, a senior researcher for Japan Refugee Association, says such prolonged detention is not good for anyone, and if the detainee needs help and is married, certainly the mate should have full access. His wife, Eriko Tamura, a Japanese, is allowed to visit him for only 30 minutes a day — a glass screen separates them during visits.

Degrading

In fact, Ishikawa points out, Article 35 of the Refugee Convention of 1951 declares that asylum seekers and refugees should not even be detained.

Amnesty International’s secretary general, Makoto Taranaka, fully agrees.

“Merdem is not going to run away. It’s degrading to even think that.

“People like him — those who are ill and/or in wheelchairs — are among our strongest concerns because they are not being cared for while in detention.

“It’s cruel. They should at least be kept in hospitals. However, it’s not being done. This policy is just too harsh.”

Ministry of Justice Immigration Department officer Yoshiko Miyazaki would not comment on Merdem’s case, or on prolonged detention and reported abuses at the facilities beyond suggesting the detention was “to protect the detainee.”

It is extremely rare for the Japanese government to reveal anything about their immigration detention facilities. And no one but security personnel, and detainees, are allowed inside. Security reasons are cited.

However, Tohru Takahashi, a high school teacher and an officer in the Immigration Task Force, cites recorded court testimonies and reports from detainees that say methods of abuse in interrogation rooms at the centers include, kicking, hitting and throwing detainees on the ground until the victims sit upright and ask for forgiveness.

There has been some official recognition of the problem of abuse in Japanese detention facilities.

‘Sexually harassed’

On 2001, a 34-year-old Ugandan named Samuel Daka sued the government for 2 million yen, charging he was “beaten and sexually harassed by the personnel” at an Osaka Detention center where he was being detained for overstaying his visa. The government denied the allegations, arguing the guards were just trying to restrain Daka.

The Osaka District Court ruled in favor of Daka, awarding him 200,000 yen while acknowledging that “there were deviant behaviors of violence by the immigration guards.”

The government appealed, but recently the Osaka High Court dismissed the appeal. Presiding judge Atsushi Hayashi said the officers’ actions could not be justified. According to the original ruling, Daka was held down and beaten by eight officers.

Daka’s lawyer said the ruling was “the first time abuse committed by immigration officials have been acknowledged by a court.”

Abuse awareness

As awareness of the issue of prisoner abuse has spread, there have been more official denunciations on the issue.

In a 2003 report distributed by the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and submitted by the Japan Fellowship Reconciliation, a nongovernmental organization in special consultative status, condemned Japan’s policy for asylum seekers and said it violates the international human rights law that prohibits torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

Abuse is the continued use of isolation cells and leather handcuffs. Inmates are sometimes handcuffed and kept in these cells for days or weeks at a time as a form of punishment. The handcuffs are left on at all times, so the wearer is forced to eat like a dog, and cannot clean himself or herself properly after going to the toilet.

A 2002 Amnesty International report expressed concern about serious reported abuses in the interrogation and deportation of people denied entry to Japan.

Amnesty claims that those denied entry were sent to a detention center at Narita Airport called a Landing Prevention Facility (LPF).

The LPF was established and funded by the immigration authorities, but is operated by private security companies.

Amnesty has called on immigration authorities to establish an official monitoring mechanism for the private security companies whose staff they claim have been routinely torturing and ill-treating those detained in the LPF.

Government failure

And they argue that the failure of the Japanese government to initiate a prompt and impartial investigation into these allegations constitutes a violation of Article 12 of the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Japan is a signatory.

Most ordinary Japanese aren’t even aware that such a problem exists. Virtually all detention center inmates are deported upon release, with the result that almost nothing about their sufferings gets any public attention.

Last year only 10 of the 336 people applying for asylum in Japan were granted it, and eight of the 10 were from Burma. A Kurd has never received asylum in Japan.

What complicates Merdem’s case is that he is known sympathizer of the Kurdish cause for self-government, and is known to have donated food and clothes to fugitive members of the Kurdish Worker’s Party members. He was arrested about 20 times between 1989 and 1993 by TIM, an anti-Kurd force operated by Turkey.

Tamura puts the double problem this way: “Immigration is hoping he will get so stressed out that he will give up and say ‘I want to go home.’ He can’t go back to Turkey because clearly he risks imprisonment, torture or death.”

Merdem isn’t hopeful. “I want to live with my wife and fix my back. But my body is half gone, and I can’t see the end of the tunnel.”