My niece, the drug smuggler

'Volunteer aunt' in Tokyo strives to listen but not judge as she hears an American convict's tragic story

by Goldie Schwartz

Special To The Japan Times

Imagine two New York Jewish women groomed among the stylish and well-educated on opposite shores of Long Island. They meet up in Tokyo for the first time. In a strange twist of fate, they are not sipping tea from fine bone china, as they might have back home. Instead they find themselves seated on opposite sides of a glass partition inside the Tokyo Detention Center. I’m an artist, not a pastor, so that first meeting comes as quite a shock.

On Oct. 31, 2011, Dina Isaacs, a 43-year-old divorced mother of two and Gulf War Desert Storm veteran, was sentenced to 12 years in prison for smuggling into Japan 17 kg of methamphetamines with a street value of more than $15 million — a crime she swears she did not willingly commit.

In Dina’s account, her nightmare began on a quiet street in Pattaya, Thailand, a mecca for tourists and magnet for organized crime. It is also the city her father — a wealthy businessman — calls home.

According to Dina’s sometimes illogical and at times implausible story, pieced together from letters and interviews, she was abducted in broad daylight on Sept. 19, 2011, near the apartment in the city she had just moved into with her two children. She believes her assailant was part of an Iranian gang, based on his accent, which she recognized from her service in the Middle East. At knifepoint, he threatened to harm her children if she didn’t follow his orders to the letter. Dina says she did what she was told.

Dina says she then entered an overseas shipping office in Pattaya, where she asked to change the requisition form for some furniture bound for Japan to her name. She says she never saw the item, as it had been sent several days earlier. The man next ordered her to purchase a plane ticket to Japan, a country she had never visited before.

Dina’s odyssey as a drug smuggler had just begun. She returned home to pick up her passport. She says her children were being looked after by hired help at the time. She says the man then raped her, ordered her to gather a few belongings, then dropped her off at Bangkok airport 100 km away, where she boarded a plane to Tokyo.

At Narita, she says she was met by another Iranian, threatened again, abused and ordered her to collect the furniture, which turned out to be stuffed with meth. Dina was arrested at the collection point in the Oifuto port area of Shinagawa Ward on Sept. 21.

Tokyo Detention Center, where I first meet Dina as she awaits her appeal trial in November 2011, towers over a man-made island of gloom. Cut off from the quiet neighborhood of Ayase, Katsushika Ward, by overhead highways that criss-cross the neighborhood, a new white housing project for members of the Tokyo police and their families offers the only sign of human life around the prison compound.

Dina enters the small meeting room. We wave to each other from opposite sides of a partition. She has huge sad eyes, her light brown hair falls in ringlets, and she wears a silky button-down blouse over her baggy trainers. With a guard on one side of her, a prison-appointed English-speaking note-taker on the other, I’m mindful that everything we say is being recorded. But Dina speaks like a woman with nothing left to lose.

“They play awful mind games in here. They blast my name from a PA system and tell me that my story is being broadcast everywhere. It’s a way of shaming us. Today’s mail from my father was delivered with no letter inside. It’s very, very hard in here.”

She tells me that her 5-by-5-meter room contains a toilet, a sink to wash her laundry, a bed and hangers, and a slot for receiving her meals. She tells me there’s a window — opaque so she can’t see outside.

“Ever since I was arrested, the police have been trying to get me to sign a lie — that I knew and did everything. But no! I will not sign my death certificate, so I put my hand over my mouth during interrogations and faced the wall. It was taken as a sign of disrespect. A policeman took his hand and closed it into a fist, saying, ‘I will break you.’ I said, ‘Is that why I can’t call my family?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ ”

“It was an incredibly unfair trial,” Dina says. The period from her arrest to her conviction was less than six weeks, leaving little time for her court-appointed defender, Masako Imai, to investigate her claims.

The prosecution, on the other hand, brought over a woman from the shipping office in Pattaya who testified that Dina signed for the sofa herself, contradicting Dina’s story. Dina suspects that this witness was working with the Iranian drug gang. No one spoke in her defense.

Shunji Miyake is a rarity among Tokyo attorneys. He has won not-guilty verdicts for foreign suspects in similar drug-smuggling cases, including a 31-year-old British woman who was exonerated in December 2010.

As with Dina, the Briton’s case revolved around the defendant transporting a massive quantity of methamphetamines from Southeast Asia — in this case, from Malaysia. The woman brought them into Japan in a suitcase given to her by an acquaintance just before her departure that she was told contained just clothing. At Narita airport, customs officers found that secret compartments in the walls of the suitcase were packed with narcotics.

“The most relevant issue is the knowledge about drugs and whether or not she had free will to say no,” explained Miyake, referring to Dina’s case, which he is not involved in. Japan’s judicial system is heavily evidence-based, he added, which accounts for its 99.8 percent conviction rate. The prosecutor will do everything in their power to get a suspect to confess so the trial can be wrapped up quickly.

“It’s common to be interrogated without a lawyer present,” Miyake continued. “The right to access a lawyer is in the Constitution but it can be waived.” If access to a lawyer was not offered or was refused — as Dina claims — “Dina could reopen the case, but it would still be difficult to prove” that fact.

“She has to present her side of the story. Her family may gather evidence to support her story — for example, her financial situation. If she wasn’t poor and in no need of money, she would have no incentive to commit a crime. It’s difficult to get an acquittal if her family is not supportive,” Miyake stressed.

In the Briton’s case, Miyake visited Kuala Lumpur, with the trip financed by the defendant’s family. There, he met a woman who knew the defendant and offered to attend the trial as a witness. The family paid for her to appear before the Tokyo court.

In Dina’s case, for reasons she herself is at a loss to explain, no such family support has been forthcoming. Her story is murky and full of unanswered questions — for one, why, at no point in her apparent ordeal prior to arrest, did she not reach out to the Thai, U.S. or Japanese authorities, or her family? — but one looms larger than all the others: Why would a mother from an apparently wealthy family knowingly commit such a foolish crime?

Dina decided to appeal, but new pieces of evidence she submitted failed to sway the Tokyo High Court, and the sentence was finalized on May 16, 2013. She was then transferred to Tochigi Women’s Prison to serve out the rest of her 12-year term.

A two-hour train ride north of Tokyo, Tochigi Women’s Prison is tucked off a main highway flanked by the silence of empty green fields. Nearly all foreign women convicted of crimes in Japan are housed here, in a bucolic setting they can’t actually see. The foreigners are a minority in the prison population of 400. Dina is lucky to get her own room, even a bed, after petitioning the U.S. Embassy to alleviate the pain from a herniated disk she has suffered during her more than 1½ years in solitary confinement at the Tokyo Detention Center.

A U.S.-based Jewish prisoner advocacy group, Aleph, can’t do anything to change Dina’s sentence or the fines she must pay, but it has offered to help negotiate Dina’s transfer to a U.S. prison. Conditions in U.S. prisons, says Aleph’s rabbi, Zvi Boyarsky, are far more lax. Dina would be permitted to use a computer, contact family and friends by email and, best of all, she says, U.S. prisons don’t enforce labor.

However, Dina can’t even think about transfer yet. Since her family has declined to pay the ¥6 million fine, she must work it off. She says she spends her weekdays sewing in a small, deafeningly noisy room, packed in with 60 other inmates. An extra year of labor has been added to Dina’s sentence to pay off this penalty. Only when the fine is worked off can she apply for transfer to a U.S. prison.

In detention, Dina could be visited daily, if she had the friends and family to make the trek to see her. Instead, she is visited by Rabbi Binyomin Edery and his wife, Efrat, who organize a team of female volunteers to call on Dina — and that’s how I got involved. I assumed that once she was moved to Tochigi prison, I would be out of the loop too, since being a fellow Jew hardly qualifies me for family status. But against the odds, Dina figured out a way to get me in. I don’t know how she did it, but a letter arrived telling me that I am now a member of her family. I’m her aunt from Tokyo.

Dina wears prison-issue uniform now — a pressed, clean blue cotton shirt and matching pants. She is very tall and I’m very short, so we meet somewhere in the middle of the partition for a very flat hug. This breaks the ice. I’m here to make Dina laugh. I see this is as essential to my new role as her volunteer aunt. Dina tells me she has three layers of long underwear on beneath her uniform, but she’s still freezing. Her face is red from the cocktail of tranquilizers, antidepressants, mood stabilizers and heart medications that keep her going.

“I’ve been praying to God, and I am grateful that in Japan there are no gangs and no drugs” in prison, she says. “The guards are ultra-polite, ultra-clean, and I’m given medicine for my heart condition,” Dina said, referring to pains that began during her initial 23 days in police custody diagnosed as being brought on by stress. “Having served in the military, I’m adaptable to my situations.”

There must be some good people on her side of the glass? Yes, she tells me. Her favorite guard from Tokyo has been transferred here. She has eight minutes after lunch when she can speak freely with the other inmates. She can watch her favorite U.S. television programs. And finally, after nearly two years’ detention inside a narrow cell, she can exercise in the leafy prison courtyard, borrow English books from the library and see movies on weekends.

“I’m almost happy here — it could be worse. Hey, at least this place isn’t a concentration camp.” Dina’s wicked sense of humor has us both hollering with laughter.

When Dina laughs with all her heart, she reminds me just why I’m going to remain her aunt, at least until she’s out of this harsh system and — the hardest part of the ordeal — no longer suffering from the loss of contact with her now-teenage children, who are living with their father in the U.S.

“They might be in their 20s” by the time I get out, she says, “and I will have missed their teenage years entirely. I think about them constantly and pray for them every day. My letters go unanswered, but I live for the day I will see them again.”

By comparison, Dina’s other complaints seem minor. The food is so bad that she wants to write a book and talk about it on the Oprah Winfrey show. The U.S. Embassy does what it can to make sure she’s given proper medical care, but it can’t do much about the diet.

Dina begins and ends each day by praying for her children from the Siddur, the book of psalms and prayers that she keeps by her bedside. She cheers herself by knowing that she is one day closer to their reunion.

Today the guard is in a generous mood and allows us to banter on for 35 minutes. Long after the visit is over, Dina’s voice lingers in my mind as I hear her saying: “What’s crazy is that I’m innocent. It drives me insane that this is happening to me. But I have to deal with the cards I’ve been dealt.”

As Dina’s volunteer aunt, I too have to live with the limitations of the cards I’ve been dealt. I must catch myself when I get the itch to do more than what a volunteer aunt can possibly do — to find those two kids of hers and put them back in touch with their heartbroken mother.

To protect her family’s privacy, Dina Isaacs asked that her real name not be published. Goldie Schwartz is a pseudonym. Send your comments and story ideas to

Coronavirus banner