The government is considering starting negotiations with former Hansen’s disease patients for an out-of-court settlement after filing an appeal against a court ruling last week ordering the state to pay them compensation, government sources said Friday.
The government and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are likely to appeal because not to do so would mean the state accepts that many of the government’s previous efforts to deal with the infection were wrong, the sources said, and this might lead to more lawsuits against the state for any official policy and measure taken previously.
The government is also considering acknowledging partial responsibility in a higher court trial after appealing the redress ruling, the sources said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told reporters Thursday at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence that the plan is “one option being studied by the government,” which was ordered by the Kumamoto District Court on May 11 to pay 1.82 billion yen in compensation to 127 plaintiffs for forcing them into isolation.
Health Minister Sakaguchi said Friday he believes the ruling was right to say the former Health and Welfare Ministry bore a grave responsibility for failing to alter its segregation policy at least by 1960, when drug therapy enabled patients to return to society.
“It is true that the (1996) abolishment of the (Leprosy Prevention) law (that forced the isolation) came too late,” he said during a Lower House committee session. It was the first time the minister publicly acknowledged the government was responsible.
His comments, which partly went against earlier comments made by ministry officials, were believed to reflect his determination to resolve the issue with political leadership.
Commenting on his planned meeting with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi early next week to decide on the issue, he said, “It is possible I will express my own opinions to the prime minister separate from the ministry’s opinions.”
Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama meanwhile declined comment on the issue Friday.
The deadline for filing an appeal is May 25.
The government forced some of the plaintiffs to have abortions or undergo sterilization, the court said.
It also acknowledged the responsibility of lawmakers for failing to carry out legal revisions at an earlier date, saying the Diet failed to revise or eliminate the segregation stipulation even though the law was unconstitutional.
If the case is not appealed, it will become the first in which the Diet has been deemed negligent. Some LDP politicians have voiced concerns over possible repercussions from confirmation of the decision.
Former Hansen’s disease patients have been urging the state not to appeal the ruling. They say continuing the suit would mean the government rejects a settlement of the issue, further infringing on the basic human rights of the plaintiffs, whose average age is now over 74.
The ruling coalition — the LDP, New Komeito and New Conservative Party — and the government are apparently in disagreement over whether to appeal. New Komeito reportedly insists it should not appeal, while the Justice Ministry wants to continue the legal battle, the sources said. Health Minister Sakaguchi is the only Cabinet member from New Komeito.
The plan to seek a settlement after appealing the ruling emerged as a compromise, the sources said.
Meanwhile, Yasuyuki Tokuda, a leading lawyer representing the plaintiffs, criticized the government for considering a plan to seek a settlement after an appeal, saying this would only “postpone a solution of the grave human rights violations” of the patients.
“I wonder if the state is going to commit a sin again. If the government appeals the ruling, the plaintiffs will exchange no words with it and fight an all-out war,” he said.
“It is a natural assumption that the state should recognize its liability and apologize. The government, especially the Justice Ministry, is just concerned about saving its face,” Tokuda said.
Hansen’s Disease is caused by a bacillus believed to be spread by airborne infection. Although it is asymptomatic in many cases, the infection attacks skin, flesh and nerves, causing symptoms such as loss of sensation and deformities to hands, feet and face in severe cases.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.