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An independent entity comprising nongovernmental organizations and experts is needed to monitor human rights conditions in prisons, according to Dr. Ole Rasmussen of the United Nations Committee Against Torture.

“Our committee believes that prison authorities’ cooperation with (the) outside world, including NGOs,” will be necessary to halt the abuse of prisoners, the 57-year-old Danish physician told The Japan Times in a recent interview.

“It has become more and more internationally agreed that there should be cooperation with NGOs or other outside authorities, who are in the right position to monitor human rights abuses.”

Rasmussen, who is an expert on wounds inflicted via torture and is a member of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture, was recently invited by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations to visit at a time when discussions are heating up on correctional reform.

On Monday, he met Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa and offered professional views on the problems he noticed during visits last week to Japanese penal institutions.

Japan has no system whereby prisoners are allowed to alert outside authorities promptly when they face injustice or abuse behind bars. This has allegedly prevented public scrutiny of rights problems inside the nation’s prisons — until two deadly assaults on Nagoya Prison inmates at the hands of guards came to light last year.

Following the two fatal abuse cases, which took place in 2001 and 2002, the Justice Ministry formed a special advisory panel — the Correctional Policy Reform Committee — to discuss improving human rights conditions, medical services and overall correctional programs.

In the course of panel discussions, it has gradually emerged that the ministry is willing to allow greater public access to information on what is going on behind prison walls.

Yet the ministry apparently wants to create a proposed watchdog to receive and process petitions from prisoners under its auspices — not an outside body.

Rasmussen maintains that an intraministry approach will not be effective.

“If you beat your wife or children, you will not be the best person to investigate the case. Shouldn’t it be someone else?” he asked. “It is like investigating one’s own crime.”

Rasmussen visited Fuchu Prison in western Tokyo, the Tokyo Detention House and an immigration detention facility in Tokyo.

While these visits were officially no more than brief “courtesy calls” with no mandate to inspect conditions, Rasmussen said he had already identified signs of conspicuous problems that could be prevalent in prison facilities nationwide.

One is the strict rules governing the movements of detainees — who have not been convicted — in the Tokyo Detention House.

The inmates, he said, are forced to spend much of their time inside their cells, except for when lawyers or family members visit, getting just 15 minutes of daily exercise.

Rules of this kind are unthinkable in Europe, where inmates at detention houses and prisons are allowed to leave their cells for at least eight hours a day and engage in productive activities, he said.

Rasmussen said guards at Fuchu Prison told him that solitary confinement, as punishment, can often last up to half a year.

“Six months in isolation is not a treatment, but a maltreatment that amounts to human degradation,” he said.

While Rasmussen has viewed prisons in 19 other countries, he said that only in Japan has he seen guards taking notes on conversations between inmates and visitors, who are separated by glass.

The poor quality of medical care inside prisons is another key correctional reform target.

The Justice Ministry has acknowledged that poor or otherwise inadequate treatment has probably caused at least 20 inmate deaths in the past 10 years.

Rasmussen said prison doctors should be independent of the corrections system and should have full supervision of inmates’ medical treatment.

Doctors should thus be placed under the jurisdiction of the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry instead of the Justice Ministry, he said, and there should be better coordination between medical facilities in prisons and outside medical institutions, as prison health care should be equivalent to that provided outside.

If medical staff are not independent, prison officials could get them to underreport prisoner abuse, he said.

The two deaths laid to abuse and other reported incidents at Nagoya Prison have raised doubts over whether Japan has fully lived up to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which requires member countries to keep a constant vigil against torture.

Rasmussen urged Japan to immediately submit a mandatory report on the prison situation that was due in 2000 under the convention, which the nation ratified in 1999.

“I will invite (the) Japanese government to (present) the report to us, so that we will be able to examine the conditions and come up with recommendations,” he said.

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