Damages from a terror probe

The Tokyo District Court on Dec. 15 ordered the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to award ¥90.2 million in damages to 17 Muslims in Japan found to have suffered violations of their privacy and defamation of character after information from the Metropolitan Police Department’s investigation into international terrorism was leaked onto the Internet. The data included records on the behavior of four Japanese and 13 others from Algeria, Iran, Tunisia and Morocco.

Despite the damages award, the plaintiffs are dissatisfied with that part of the ruling affirming the unavoidable nature of the investigation in view of the international terrorism threat. The case is now before the Tokyo High Court after the plaintiffs appealed the ruling. The high court should strictly scrutinize whether it is proper for the security police to conduct investigations of ordinary citizens without restraint for the said purpose of preventing terrorism.

The records in question were contained in 114 documents in five compressed files that streamed onto the Internet around 10 p.m. on Oct. 28, 2010. The statute of limitations for investigation of the leak expired three years later.

Although it was strongly believed that most of the documents were compiled and held by the MPD’s Security Bureau’s Third Foreign Affairs Division in charge of investigation related to international terrorism, the MPD refused to say during the trial whether the documents were related to the MPD’s counter-terrorism investigation.

The ruling said the data were created by the police, held by that division of the MPD and leaked by some insider, and that the MPD is responsible for having failed to properly control the data.

According to the ruling, the documents contained information about the 17 and other Muslims as well as their society.

Investigation methods used by the MPD included staking out mosques, Muslim-run stores and places frequently visited. The documents included the 17 Muslims’ names, birth dates, photos, addresses, contacts, and religious and education activities. Through file-swapping software, the data were downloaded more than 10,000 times in more than 20 countries.

The ruling pointed out that it is inevitable that the leaked documents would create the impression among the public that the 17 Muslims were terrorists or were regarded as suspicious by the police. Emphasizing that the degree of privacy violation and defamation is great, the court awarded between ¥2 million and ¥5 million in damages to each plaintiff.

The ruling went on, however, to justify the investigation itself. It stated that, in view of the acknowledged terror threat from some Muslim extremists, one should not infer from the MPD’s collection of information on particular Muslims that the police looked on the faith of Islam as an enemy.

It is regrettable that the court failed to consider the issue of whether it is acceptable for the police to place some people under surveillance just because they are Muslims.

What happened to the 17 Muslims should serve as a reminder to people that the definition of terrorism under the newly enacted state secrets law is so wide that any citizen could become the target of a counter-terrorism investigation. And once such an investigation is designated a “special secret” it will be impossible for citizens to demand that the police disclose what they are doing.

The damages suit compels citizens to seriously ponder the dangers of the secrecy law.