YOKOHAMA – The escape of an alleged rapist from a Kawasaki prosecutor’s office interrogation room this week has highlighted the insufficient security steps at such branches as well as the apparent lax guarding of suspected criminals.
Police Friday restarted interrogating Yuta Sugimoto, 20, while also looking into possible involvement by his former classmates, who may have helped him escape.
Prior to his escape from the Kawasaki branch of the Yokohama prosecutor’s office, Sugimoto denied involvement in the alleged group rape and violent robbery of a woman in Asao Ward, Kawasaki, on Jan. 2.
The large-scale manhunt for Sugimoto ended around noon Thursday, about two days after his escape from the sixth-floor interrogation room where he was meeting his lawyer.
While meeting the lawyer Tuesday, Sugimoto fled despite being guarded by a senior police officer in his 50s and a prosecutor’s assistant officer. Sugimoto even removed the rope that had been tied around his waist, which the police officer was retying at the time of his escape.
The door to the interrogation room can be locked from the outside but can easily be opened from the inside. There are no other measures in force to prevent suspects from fleeing, police said, admitting its escape prevention measures are insufficient.
At the time Sugimoto fled, the assistant officer who was also at the meeting had left the room to make copies of documents, according to Yokohama prosecutors. When the assistant officer returned, Sugimoto had already fled, they said.
This incident has prompted Yokohama prosecutors to consider prohibiting officials from ever leaving the interrogation room when a suspect is meeting a lawyer, while also equipping officers with radios to communicate faster in an emergency.
According to Norio Akamatsu, a lawyer familiar with issues related to interviewing suspects, the headquarters of 50 district prosecutor’s offices nationwideall have separate interrogation rooms for prosecutors and interview rooms for lawyers and arrested suspects.
Normally, entry into an interview room is gained from a separate room, which is guarded by police. The interview rooms are partitioned with an acrylic wall for security reasons, and the lawyers talk with their clients through a transparent acrylic wall.
But such a situation is not necessarily the case when it comes to branch offices.
The Criminal Affairs Bureau of the Justice Ministry revealed that as of last April, of the 203 branch prosecutor’s offices, 144 did not have interview rooms for lawyers and suspects. At those branches, including Kawasaki, interrogation rooms have been used instead, with the attendance of police officers and prosecutor’s office assistant officers.
On Friday, Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki said the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered all prosecutor’s offices to strengthen security measures to prevent escapes.
“I apologize that we have caused trouble and worries among the public as well as the entire nation. We will look into the problem and prevent similar incidents,” Tanigaki said.
Meanwhile, Kanagawa Prefectural Police said they will verify whether the rope was tied correctly and that staff arrangements were proper during the interview.
“Police should have assigned another officer to attend the meeting, because we can predict that suspects of such heinous crime may hold stronger motives to escape because they could face long prison terms,” said Masaru Wakasa, former deputy head of the special investigation unit at the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office.
After Sugimoto was recaptured Thursday, the National Police Agency urged police nationwide to confirm that suspects are securely bound when being interrogated, interviewed or escorted.