The only way to see or speak to Moses Ssentamu is through a Plexiglas window at the West Japan Immigration Center in Ibaraki City, so there is no independent way to verify his claims of physical and psychological abuse. But if true, they raise serious concerns about Japan’s treatment of visa overstayers and asylum seekers.
Did a group of security guards at the center punch and kick Ssentamu in a coordinated assault in January? Are the authorities at the complex in Osaka Prefecture refusing medical treatment to another inmate, Mujahid Aziz Iqbal, a wheelchair-bound Pakistani? And, most serious of all, do detention centers here deliberately dole out harsh treatment in the hope that detainees will leave the country?
Ssentamu, 35, has been locked up here for over a year since being arrested for overstaying in 2008. Back in his homeland, he says he was active with the opposition Forum for Democratic Change Uganda, and claims to have been arrested and tortured by the authorities. Facing a trial for sedition he knew he couldn’t win, he decided to flee the country, leaving behind his wife and four kids.
“It was not my decision to come here,” he explains. “I didn’t know anything about this country, but a sympathizer got me a visa — he said it was the easiest place to get one at that time.”
Arriving on a three-month visa in May 2006, Ssentamu says that he found his way via a local Ugandan contact to Nagoya, where he slept rough and sold imported jeans around the city for a living. Friends told him the only way to stay in Japan “was to marry a Japanese woman,” he recalls, and then apply for political refugee status. But on Nov. 29, 2008, before he could do either, he was picked up by the police.
Fifteen months later, he has no idea when he will get out, or if the Ministry of Justice will buy his argument that going back to Uganda could be dangerous, even fatal.
“I’m not a criminal. I want to be released and given a chance to produce evidence of my political treatment and persecution.”
While the authorities process that claim, however, they have another one to ponder. On Jan. 15, Ssentamu says that he was assaulted after he mildly protested during his transportation to a hospital outside the center.
“I was being taken for a doctor’s appointment and I was handcuffed by two guards,” he recalls. “When I complained that my handcuffs were too tight and (asked) that the guards loosen them a little, one insisted that he could do nothing about them. Given that the entire journey to the hospital takes an hour or so, I said I couldn’t endure the discomfort, so I told them I was not willing to go.”
Ssentamu’s guards responded angrily to the challenge, he says, shoving and pushing him back into his room, where he admits he “tried to protest” — verbally, he insists. After the guards had subdued him, they returned sometime later, he says, with “20 or more” officers, all clad in black gloves, who told him they were there to help him change rooms. As he began to prepare, the guards grabbed him and “manhandled” him out of the room.
“In no second or minute, I was in the air with showers of kicking under my back, blows on my stomach,” Ssentamu later wrote in a letter sent to The Japan Times, Amnesty International and several other organizations that deal with refugee and asylum issues. “(As) all this was happening, one of the first two officers was blocking my face with the palm of his hand to prevent me from recognizing the faces of the officers who were assaulting me.”
Ssentamu says he was then dumped in a “punishment room” where the officers pushed his head down a toilet bowl as they struggled to handcuff and subdue him. A guard later told him, as he lay on the floor with his “pants around his ankles,” that he was being punished for refusing to go to hospital. He would spend five days in solitary confinement.
The detention center denies any such assault took place.
“That’s a lie,” says spokesman Norifumi Kishida. “Guards may handcuff or subdue an inmate if he is doing harm to himself or others, but there is no way that so many guards would deliberately harm an inmate.”
Nearly two months after this alleged assault, Ssentamu is unable to show any visible scars, except for marks on his wrists he says were left by the tight handcuffs.
“I was not badly hurt; I was humiliated,” he says.
Without proof, there remains the possibility that it is a fabrication, albeit an elaborate, detailed one that risks further worsening his relationship with the authorities or even prejudicing his asylum application.
In 2005, Japan deported two members of a seven-member Kurdish family who had been “recognized as refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees under its own rules,” according to a recent report by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA). Many believe the family’s decision to publicly protest and speak to the media about their treatment was a factor in the deportation decision (Zeit Gist, April 29, 2003; March 29, 2005; July 3, 2007).
The JFBA says Japan gave refugee status to just 6.5 percent of 3,292 asylum applicants from 1985 to 2005. The federation notes that while hundreds of applications from Kurds, Chinese and Africans were rejected, applicants from Myanmar were given preferred status, concluding: “It is inferred that the government have paid diplomatic consideration in the background.” In other words, Japan’s refugee selection process is nakedly political.
Ssentamu’s lawyer, Shiro Sadakane, refused to back his client’s claims of abuse, except to say that he has heard of “similar cases.” Amnesty International and the Japan Association for Refugees acknowledge that they have received the Ugandan’s letter. Makoto Teranaka, Amnesty Japan’s secretary general, declined to comment on its specific claims, but said the secrecy surrounding Japan’s detention system is a problem.
“It means we can’t see what’s going on inside. The detention system is much less organized than the prisons, and we’ve noted quite arbitrary treatment of people inside.”
He says his office receives a steady stream of letters and calls from refugees alleging mistreatment in detention centers.
“The number of complaints has been growing since about 2000. It’s quite common now.”
Another inmate at the west Japan center, 37-year-old Mujahid Aziz Iqbal, says he has lost over 14 kg in weight and the use of his legs since last October, probably because of a psychosomatic disorder. He was convicted of selling stolen cars and faces deportation back to Pakistan. In addition to specific claims of mistreatment by some of the guards, he says the center has refused his demand for treatment and responded to his condition by offering “useless” painkillers.
“They keep saying that I have to wait my turn to go to hospital, but I need help now.”
Both men admit that their ordeal would end if they simply told the Ministry of Justice that they want to return home. But for the Pakistani, who has been in Japan for 15 years and has two children to his ex-wife, leaving is not an option.
“I want to see my children. Relations with my wife are bad, but my kids love me.”
Ssentamu, meanwhile, believes that the conditions inside the center, including rooms with single toilets shared by eight to 10 inmates, serve a purpose: deterrence.
“These are deliberate acts aimed at breaking down the will to seek refuge in this country.” He says some inmates have been inside the center for over two years.
According to the Japan Association for Refugees, detention center inmates can apply for provisional release, but the bar is set very high. They need a Japanese guarantor and bail of ¥500,000 to ¥1 million.
“Most do not have that kind of money and they cannot find a guarantor,” explains Soojin Hyung, the association’s program officer. On average, therefore, Hyung says, it takes about a year to be released.
“Many people suspect that because the Japanese government is afraid to deport people in case of international criticism, they would rather detain them. It’s a means of deterrence — foreigners know that if they come here without a visa, they’re going to suffer. It’s sending out a message: Don’t come here.”
Ssentamu is still in a cell by himself — punishment, he claims, for protesting and urging others to speak out. Confinement is worsened by a myriad of petty official humiliations including cold food and a lack of water to flush toilets. Is he just making life hard for himself by breaking the rules and refusing to accept his punishment?
“Civil activists the world over who fight for their rights are called troublemakers,” he says from behind his Plexiglas wall. “I’m fighting for my rights.”
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