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Justice stalled in brutal death of deportee

Autopsy suggests immigration officers used excessive force in restraining Ghanaian

by Sumie Kawakami and David Mcneill

Abubakar Awudu Suraj had been in Japan for over two decades when immigration authorities detained him in May 2009. The Ghanaian was told in Yokohama of his deportation to Ghana at 9:15 a.m. on March 22 last year. Six hours later he was dead, allegedly after being excessively restrained by guards.

Jimmy Mubenga also died last year while being held down by three private security guards before takeoff on a British Airways flight from London to Angola. The father of five had lost his appeal to stay in the U.K. and was being deported. Mubenga put up a struggle and died after the guards sat on him for 10 minutes, say witnesses.

But the details of the deportations of two men from rich countries back to their native Africa, and their aftermath, are strikingly different. Mubenga’s death is already the subject of a vigorous police inquiry, front-page stories and an investigation by The Guardian newspaper. The case has been discussed in Parliament, where security minister Baroness Neville-Jones called it “extraordinarily regrettable.”

Suraj has received no such honors. The 45-year-old’s case has largely been ignored in the Japanese media and no politician has answered for his death. An investigation by Chiba prosecutors appears to have stalled. There has been no explanation or apology from the authorities.

His Japanese wife, who had shared a life with him for 22 years, was not even aware he was being deported. She was given no explanation when she identified his body later that day. His body was not returned to her for nearly three months. Supporters believe he put up a struggle because he wanted to tell his wife he was being sent home.

An autopsy report seen in a court document notes abrasions to his face, internal bleeding of muscles on the neck, back, abdomen and upper arm, along with leakage of blood around the eyes, blood congestion in some organs, and dark red blood in the heart. Yet the report bizarrely concluded that the cause of death is “unknown.”

Any movement in the Suraj case is largely down to his wife, who wants to remain anonymous. She won a lawsuit against the Justice Ministry, which oversees immigration issues, demanding it disclose documents related to his death. The documents were finally released in May, more than a year after he died.

According to the documents, Suraj was escorted from Yokohama by nine immigration officers to Narita airport. After spending about two hours in a waiting room at the airport, he was taken to another vehicle, in handcuffs and with a rope tied around his waist. They arrived at the aircraft at 1:40 p.m.

Suraj stepped out of the vehicle at 2:20 p.m. The immigration officers said in the documents that because he was protesting his deportation, they restrained him face down and carried him onto the Egypt Air MS965 flight for Cairo. They used an additional pair of metal cuffs around his ankles (a prohibited practice) and forced him to sit in an aisle seat on the back row.

One officer took out four pairs of plastic restraints that he had bought with his own money and tied the handcuffs to his belt. Other officers gagged him so tightly with a towel (again, illegally) that his front teeth bit through the towel. One officer pushed Suraj’s neck from behind to bend his body further forward. Suraj was motionless by 2:35 p.m.

At the request of the cabin crew, the officers moved Suraj to a window seat, but he was unresponsive. The officers reasoned that he was just pretending to be sick, but the cabin crew saw Suraj was leaning motionless against the window and asked for him to be removed from the plane at 2:50 p.m. No resuscitation attempt was made until he was carried out of the aircraft and into the vehicle they came in. A doctor in an airport clinic confirmed his death at 3:31 p.m.

“These documents based on the accounts of the officers point to illegal and excessive use of restraints,” says Sosuke Seki, a lawyer involved in the case. “Immigration officers are supposed to videotape deportation procedures when restraints are applied, but the officer in charge of Suraj’s deportation specifically ordered videotaping to be stopped when he was carried into the aircraft. Whether this was intentional or not must be revealed in the trial.”

Suraj’s legal problems began after he entered Japan on a tourist visa in May 1988. He met his future wife four months later; they moved in together the following January, despite his tourist visa having expired in June. Suraj was arrested and detained 18 years later in 2006, following the announcement of a crackdown on “overstayers” by then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

By the time he was forcibly put on a plane at Narita, he had spent a total of 20 months in detention centers, despite the fact that Tokyo’s Suginami Ward Office had officially accepted their marriage application.

Japan’s immigration authorities can detain any foreigner without proper documentation for indefinite periods when they suspect violations of the Immigration Control Law. They are under no compulsion to explain why such people need to be locked up.

Both asylum seekers and immigrants without proper visas are detained in the same facilities, known as “immigration centers.” Human rights groups say immigration authorities apply regulations arbitrarily and make decisions with agonizing slowness.

The Immigration Bureau says the number of people in the country who had “illegally stayed in Japan beyond the permitted period” was 91,778 as of January 2010. In addition, 1,388 people filed for refugee status the previous year. In principle, any of these people may be detained.

In 2010, 18,578 overstayers were handed deportation orders, representing about 77 percent of the 24,213 people who received such papers that year. Many were detained in Japan for many months before they were finally made to leave the country. Some had — for all intents and purposes — already settled productively into Japanese society, married Japanese nationals with Japan-born children. Others have children who have started school in Japan and only speak Japanese. Some are released on temporary permits, only to be detained again a few months later.

After Suraj’s death, the police called on Junpei Yamamura, a doctor who regularly visits immigrants and asylum seekers at detention centers, and who had records of the victim’s health.

“The police were obviously trying to find weakness in Suraj’s health when they came to ask about him,” Yamamura says. “They visited me four times about the case, despite the fact I repeatedly told them that there was nothing wrong with him.”

Yamamura said his records showed that Suraj’s heartbeat was slower than average on one occasion, but was normal when he was reexamined later. An electrocardiogram otherwise showed no abnormality.

Yamamura also examined his body after it was returned to his wife. He says he saw a cut on Suraj’s cheek, an indication that the gag was too tight. “This is criminal abuse of power,” says Yamamura.

Chiba Police began an investigation on the suspicion that Suraj died as a result of violence inflicted on him by the immigration officers. The case was sent to the Chiba District Public Prosecutors’ Office in December. Prosecutors are still investigating. Police referred nine (possibly 10) immigration officers to Chiba prosecutors in December, but they have not been indicted. The criminal charges against the officers are still up in the air.

His widow fears the case will be forgotten if it is drawn out any longer. In desperation, she and Suraj’s mother in Ghana filed a suit in August for compensation against the government and nine immigration officers who were involved in his deportation. The trial began on Monday.

Among their demands is that the Justice Ministry disclose why they stopped videoing the deportation on the day of Suraj’s death. The ministry has admitted that such video existed but initially refused to disclose it, claiming that the case was still under investigation.

Human rights groups will be watching the outcome of the case very closely. As for Suraj’s widow, she says she simply wants justice.

“Nothing will bring him back, but I just need to know why he died,” she said.

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