Masaharu Katsuno says he survived a decade in an Australian prison because he held out hope that he, his two brothers and their two friends — all convicted heroin smugglers — would someday be exonerated of their crimes.
Although Katsuno completed his sentence and returned to Japan in 2002, he like his four fellow convicts, including his younger brother, Yoshio, 48, who remains in prison, continue to maintain their innocence.
Now 12 years after the initial arrests, which were widely reported in Japan when the case broke in 1992, their lawyers plan to take legal steps in Australia this fall to get the case be re-examined.
“Even after my return home, I still suffer from the same agony and frustration that marked my years in prison,” said Masaharu, 55, who recently found a job as a chauffeur at a Tokyo company. “Unless I prove my innocence and regain my human dignity, I will have no peace of mind.”
Arriving on a flight from Kuala Lumpur, the five Japanese were arrested as tourists at Melbourne Airport in June 1992 after customs officers found in the luggage of four of them hidden recesses holding packs containing a combined 13 kg of heroin.
Throughout their trial, the five claimed that they were innocent, that their original luggage had been stolen during their Kuala Lumpur stopover, and that the bags they carried into Melbourne were provided to them free by a Malaysian friend of Masaharu’s brother, Yoshio, who, like the Malaysian, had underworld connections.
Remaining behind bars throughout their trial, the five were found guilty of drug-smuggling two years later, and their appeals were later rejected by the High Court of Australia, the country’s top court.
Although Masaharu, another brother and the two friends finished their terms and returned to Japan in 2002, Yoshio, who was convicted as the mastermind of the smuggling, is still serving his term in Australia.
The five claim the Malaysian, who had helped arrange the trip for the Katsuno family, set them up to unwittingly carry the contraband. Masaharu claimed that during their Kuala Lumpur stopover, a car holding their baggage disappeared. The bags were later found with the belongings intact, but the bags had been damaged, so the Malaysian promptly provided them with new luggage, he said.
The Japanese lawyers of the five, who believe the man was the real mastermind, plan to ask the Australian attorney general for amnesty — a step that might result in authorities re-examining the case.
The move is considered a last resort for convicted criminals who have lost their appeal, because the High Court does not allow them to directly file for a retrial, the lawyers of the five said.
Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee recommended that Australian judicial authorities initiate a retrial in response to individual petitions filed by the five. The courts have yet to respond to the request.
The committee judged there were problematic criminal procedures in the case, especially poor translations.
During the police interrogations and the trial, publicly appointed translators for the five could not adequately understand either Japanese or English — or both — on many occasions, giving the jury the impression that the five were lying or trying to hide information, their lawyers said.
In the application for amnesty, the defense team will cite testimony by the Malaysian that they believe indicates the five Japanese are innocent.
In 1999, lawyer Shun Tanaka, who heads the defense team for the five, interviewed the man, who was in a Malaysian jail. He did not confess to playing a leading role in the smuggling but said he was “gravely sorry” for the five Japanese, the lawyer said.
The Malaysian said he was especially sorry for Chika Honda, who twice attempted to kill herself while serving time in the Australian prison, the lawyer said.
The appeal for amnesty will initially be filed in the name of Honda, 48, who is a friend of Masaharu’s other brother, whose innocence, defense lawyers argue, is clear from circumstantial evidence.
She joined the trip at the last minute and did not personally know Yoshio or the Malaysian.
“Nothing can retrieve my lost decade,” said Honda, who currently lives in the city of Saitama. “I hope a retrial will retrieve my dignity and cast light on the issue of foreign victims of false charges and discriminatory criminal justice systems in the world.”