Staff writer When the court officer announced “all rise” before the close of the trial, the 58-year-old mentally disability defendant remained seated. When the judge sentenced him in July to a 20-month prison term, he was the only one who apparently did not understand what had happened. The man was arrested and tried last year for allegedly setting fire to the storage shack of a workshop for mentally disabled people in Tokyo’s Kokubunji, where he himself was interned. Regarding the sentence, Judge Masahiro Hiratani of the Tokyo District Court’s Hachioji branch said, “the defendant’s confessions often varied in detail, but they were consistent in the core part and reliable.” But defense lawyers have consistently claimed he was framed. “His response to any question is ‘yes,'” said Hiroaki Soejima, one of the lawyers. An official record of the questioning by prosecutors shows the defendant, whose name has been withheld, answered “yes” to whatever he was asked. When a prosecutor read out the “facts” found by police, he simply repeated “yes.” His tendency to comply with the version of facts presented by the prosecution was particularly evident when a prosecutor attempted to verify the name of the workshop. After the man pronounced it correctly as “Nozomien,” the prosecutor incorrectly read it as “Kiboen,” to which the man then agreed. “Mentally disabled people in general rarely disagree with what police say and tend to be led or coerced (into making false confessions),” said Osamu Nakata, professor emeritus of Tokyo Medical and Dental University, who has conducted hundreds of psychiatric tests in criminal cases. Defense lawyers repeatedly requested they be allowed to attend the their client’s interrogations, but were denied. An advisory panel to the prime minister launched in July is now discussing reforms of the judicial system. The panel is scheduled to announce issues to be put on the agenda of the talks next week. While a jury system and reform of the way judges are recruited are expected to be the major topics of debate, some experts consider the discussions a good chance to improve the system, which they claim lacks consideration for the mentally disabled. Justice often seems to elude mentally disabled people who are victims of crimes as well. A pattern of cruel abuse of employees with mental disabilities by the president of a cardboard maker in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture, was widely covered by the media in 1996, and even became the model of a popular TV drama. But while the president was convicted of three assault charges, the other 14 criminal complaints against him — including allegations from seven women that he raped them — were dropped. Investigators are quick to accept the statements of the mentally disabled as credible when they are criminal suspects, but their complaints as victims are frequently doubted by authorities and often go unheard, said Soejima, who has devoted himself to protecting mentally disabled people. Although media reports on abuse of the mentally disabled at “welfare facilities” and private firms hiring them for government subsidies appear constantly, experts say these cases are just the tip of the iceberg. According to Soejima, disabled people who are abused often remain silent about what happened to them for a long time, having no one to turn to for help. Abuses often take place behind closed doors, with only mentally disabled colleagues as witnesses, causing investigators to often not pursue criminal charges, he added. Even those supporting the mentally disabled say it is not an easy task to communicate with and solicit facts from them, especially for investigators without special training. “How can the complaints they made to us so tearfully turn into contradictory stories after (they are) confined in an investigation room for several hours?” Soejima asked. At a meeting held last Sunday by Inclusion Japan, an organization of parents with mentally disabled children, Soejima stressed the importance of establishing a system that allows lawyers or specialists to sit in when mentally disabled people being interrogated, whether as criminal suspects or victims. He also called for a system in which all criminal suspects — disabled and nondisabled — can receive publicly funded legal protection starting at the point of their arrest, as opposed to after indictment, as currently provided. Bar associations nationwide have launched volunteer programs to send lawyers to give free consultations at the request of those arrested. However, in the case of mentally disabled suspects, often when investigators try to inform them of their rights, using even simple language, they are frequently unable to understand. Unlike people with clinically diagnosed mental illnesses, many mentally disabled people are treated like other suspects in criminal proceedings, including the Hachioji man whose disability is recognized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government as “middle degree,” which means his IQ is between 35 and 49. People close to him say he can speak but cannot communicate properly. According to Kiyoshi Yamaki, a researcher at the University of Illinois Institute on Disability and Human Development, there are professionals in the United States who specialize in communicating with mentally disabled people in criminal proceedings. Programs to train investigative officers for better communication with the mentally disabled are also available in most states, he added. However, such a progressive social system cannot be obtained without the consent of the public. “After all, it is a question for all of us whether we are ready to shoulder the cost of protecting the socially disadvantaged people.” Yamaki said.

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