• Kyodo

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In a landmark ruling, the government was ordered Friday to pay 1.82 billion yen in compensation to 127 former Hansen’s disease patients who claimed their rights were violated because they were forced into isolation while being treated.

The Kumamoto District Court upheld the claim by the 127 plaintiffs that the state chose to maintain a prewar segregation policy in formulating the 1953 Leprosy Prevention Law, even though the disease is not highly contagious and a cure was developed in the 1940s.

Presiding Judge Masashi Sugiyama said the former Health and Welfare Ministry bore a grave responsibility for failing to alter its isolation policy at least by 1960, when drug therapy allowed sufferers to return to society.

The court also acknowledged that lawmakers were responsible for failing to carry out necessary legal revisions at an earlier date.

“It was obvious in 1960 that the law stipulating the isolation of patients was unconstitutional. It is appropriate to admit that (the Diet) failed to revise or scrap such a stipulation,” it said.

It was the first ruling in a series of damages suits filed against the state by 779 plaintiffs in connection with the controversial case. Plaintiffs have filed suits with district courts in Kumamoto, Tokyo and Okayama since the first group did so in July 1998.

The former patients had demanded that the state pay them each 115 million yen in compensation for their forced isolation under the law, which was abolished in April 1996.

The court ordered the state to pay each plaintiff between 8 million yen and 14 million yen.

The plaintiffs, who were forced to enter Hansen’s disease sanitariums from the 1940s until the 1960s, said they had limited freedom, and many were sterilized or in some cases forced to have abortions.

Hansen’s disease is caused by a bacillus believed to be spread by airborne droplet infection. The bacillus attacks nerve endings, leading to loss of feeling, paralysis and in extreme cases, loss of extremities.

The plaintiffs affected by Friday’s ruling were among the 562 who filed suit with the Kumamoto court.

The state had rejected the plaintiffs’ claims, saying medical knowledge at the time the law was enacted led officials to believe isolating patients with the infection was a reasonable action.

The state had also argued that the plaintiffs had waived their rights to sue, citing a 20-year statute of limitations stipulated by the Civil Code, since more than 20 years had passed since the state adopted the isolation policy.

In abolishing the law in 1996, the government decided to grant a 2.5 million yen one-time payment to those who start a new life outside the sanitariums. However, only 17 former patients have done so, mainly due to their advanced ages and fear of discrimination and prejudice.

Many of the patients have lost touch with relatives and have no offspring to rely on because of the sterilizations, which were not stipulated in the 1953 law but strongly recommended by doctors and bureaucrats.

As of February, five years after the law was scrapped, some 4,500 former patients still reside in the sanitariums, where all expenses are covered by the state.

After hearing the ruling at the court, Kazumi Sogano, a 73-year-old plaintiff of an ongoing trial at Okayama District Court, said that he was “moved by an unexplainable feeling of joy” while the judge was reading the ruling.

Sogano said that he was forcibly sent to a national sanitarium on a remote island in Okayama Prefecture in 1947, although he had already been healed at the time.

“The ruling held both the government and Diet responsible, and considering that around 200 former patients annually die from aging today, I want to ask them not to appeal,” he said.

Fujio Otani, a 77-year-old former health ministry official who voiced opposition to the state policy in the 1950s and 1960s, also praised the ruling.

“I think for many former patients it means justice is alive in this society,” said Otani, who has long worked in support of the former patients. “I hope the ruling marks the beginning of the end of decades of suffering.

Otani also said he was deeply relieved by the ruling.

“I have long been caught in a dilemma,” he said, “as I was also partly responsible for their sufferings as a bureaucrat.”

Lawyers representing plaintiffs before the Tokyo District Court expressed hope that Friday’s ruling will bring an immediate settlement to their battle.

“We believe the landmark decision has paved the way for the settlement of the Tokyo and Okayama trials within this year (by a court-mediated settlement),” lawyer Toshihiro Suzuki said. “We will seek a court-mediated settlement by pressuring the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry and the Diet.”

Considering the average age of the plaintiffs, which exceeds 74, Suzuki said, it would be cruel to make them wait any longer.

Suzuki said it would probably take another year if they wait for a court ruling.

Suzuki and other lawyers representing the plaintiffs are from a team that won a legal victory for HIV-infected hemophiliacs who contracted the virus through contaminated blood products imported from the U.S. and approved by the Japanese government, despite warnings of the products’ risks.

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