OSAKA — The Osaka District Court ordered the state Thursday to pay 2 million yen in damages for allowing prosecutors to read letters that two men accused of robbery and injuring a woman had written to their lawyers while in the Osaka Detention House.
The damages were awarded to two lawyers, who had demanded 20 million yen from the state. They had argued that allowing prosecutors to read the letters was a violation of the prisoners’ right to request a defense and of the constitutional guarantee of the confidentiality of correspondence.
“The contents of letters from prisoners to their lawyers should not be checked in detail, and it is illegal to keep records of the letters and give them to prosecutors. However, it cannot be called a violation of the Constitution,” said presiding Judge Ryoichi Yagi.
According to the court, the two men, both 22, were indicted in September 1997 on charges of robbing and seriously injuring a woman in the city of Osaka. They were sentenced to prison terms last November.
During their trial in December 1997, prosecutors handling the case at the Osaka District Public Prosecutor’s Office made inquiries to the Osaka Detention House about the contents of the letters written by the two men.
In January 1998, the detention house gave the prosecutors summaries of letters written to acquaintances and the two lawyers. The prosecutors submitted the summary to the Osaka District Court, but judges at the court refused to admit it as evidence in the case against the two.
The prosecutors had argued that reading the letters is allowed under the Prison Law. They said they needed to check the letters’ contents because there were suspicions that the two were trying to coordinate their statements through their attorneys.
In Thursday’s ruling, Judge Yagi said the freedom of communication between the accused and their lawyers is an “extremely important right” deriving from the Constitution.
It was illegal for the detention house to examine and keep records of the contents of such letters, he concluded.
Judge Yagi said censorship of letters to and from the accused in general is a legitimate action in view of the need to prevent destruction of evidence.
In the ruling, the judge indicated that the practice of allowing prosecutors to view the contents of letters between the accused and their lawyers is widespread, adding that “similar cases have been reported in Osaka and Kyoto.”
An official at the Osaka Detention House summoned to the court during the trial testified that 2,000 letters are censored each day and a summary of their contents are kept in files.
He said he may show photocopies of such a letter to prosecutors if the accused is, for example, hinting at suicide.