The ongoing allegations of abuse of inmates at Nagoya Prison have highlighted human rights concerns that have been raised by domestic and international watchdogs over Japan’s prison system.

Last Friday, prosecutors arrested five guards at the prison, including the head guard, Takashi Watanabe, for allegedly using excessive force to subdue a prisoner that led to his hospitalization.

Prosecutors also suspect other abuse in the penitentiary claimed an inmate’s life.

On Sept. 25, the guards allegedly placed a 30-year-old inmate in solitary confinement and used a restraining device on him when he became agitated during questioning. The device consists of a leather belt and manacles.

The inmate suffered internal bleeding and was hospitalized for three weeks.

In May, a 49-year-old male inmate reportedly stopped breathing after the five allegedly left him in solitary confinement in the same restraint.

The U.N. Human Rights Committee and Amnesty International have criticized use of the restraining device as “cruel and inhumane.”

The Tokyo District Court awarded damages in June to an American former prisoner who was restrained in the device and thrown into solitary for a night at Tokyo’s Fuchu Prison. Such treatment was unnecessary and illegal, according to the court.

“I thought I was dying,” a Tokyo man in his early 40s recently told The Japan Times, describing being restrained in the device while serving time several years ago in a prison in the Kanto region.

After a minor quarrel with a guard, he said, he was pinned to the ground and bound in the device, which was cinched too tight.

“The guard was an expert at judo and weighed more than 100 kg. He straddled me while several other guards gathered around to press my head to the ground.”

He said he was then locked in a solitary “protection” cell. He was also made to remove his pants and put on a pair of shorts that featured a wide slit across the crotch through which he could defecate.

“I was sitting in the middle of the cell and quietly staring at the camera because I did not want to show them that I was in pain,” he said. “After 30 or 40 minutes, they were expecting me to be thrashing about in pain. But I didn’t, so the guards came in and made the restraint even tighter.

“I soon began sweating and was unable to breathe normally,” he said.

The use of the device has been decreasing in recent years at Fuchu Prison and Osaka Prison. In 1997, Fuchu used the device on 97 occasions, and only 10 times a year since 1999, according to Justice Ministry statistics. But at Nagoya Prison, its use as risen dramatically. In 2001, the device was used 53 times. This year, 148.

Responding to a question by Mizuho Fukushima of the Social Democratic Party at a Diet session in October, Kenji Nakai, director of the Justice Ministry’s Corrections Bureau, said the ministry was worried about the increase and was investigating.

Prison officials meanwhile stand by the strict rules in Japanese prisons.

“Otherwise, prisoners with power rule the prison and weak inmates would be victimized,” said an official at a prison in eastern Japan.

He said prison overcrowding has created trouble among inmates and raised the stress of officials.

Human rights watchdogs cite as one of their greatest concerns the tendency of authorities at Japan’s correctional and detention facilities to conceal internal trouble.

Yuichi Kaido, director of the Center for Prisoners’ Rights, a nongovernmental rights watchdog, issued a statement Oct. 31 calling for establishment of a group to independently monitor rights violations at such facilities. He also called for an outright ban on restraining devices.

Citing the case of the 30-year-old man at Nagoya Prison, Kaido said this may have been retaliation by guards.

The inmate had asked the Nagoya Bar Association to help protect him from “inappropriate” punishment in the prison. The guards are suspected of pressuring him to withdraw his request.

The former prisoner said inmates who try to bring complaints against authorities to outside bodies and lawyers face retaliation by guards, including solitary confinement for “causing them trouble.”

In 1998, the U.S. Human Rights Committee urged Japan to establish an independent institution to probe human rights violations by authorities. The Diet has begun deliberating a government-sponsored bill to form an independent panel.

Abuses and other human rights violations often occur at facilities such as prisons and immigration houses that are under the Justice Ministry’s jurisdiction. However, as the proposed watchdog institution would likely be an affiliate of the ministry, observers doubt whether it can be independent and impartial.

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