Japan’s criminal justice system lacks a fundamental notion that is manifest in other parts of the democratized world: the presumption of innocence, according to human rights advocates.

Suspects are still forced to make false confessions during interrogations in which legal representation is banned, and custody can last up to 23 days before charges are filed, lawyers and people who claim to have or were determined to have been falsely accused told a recent public meeting in Tokyo held by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.

Arrested suspects are often detained in a police “daiyo kangoku” substitute prison for up to 23 days before indictment, and release on bail is unlikely as long as they plead innocent or remain silent.

Tokyo lawyer Yoshihiro Yasuda, who was arrested in 1998 and charged with obstructing the compulsory seizure of building rental income used by his client as collateral, told the meeting, “The investigators shouted obscenities at me to extract a confession.”

Yasuda claimed they told him it is cowardly to invoke the right to remain silent and said he should take responsibility as a lawyer. He was held for almost 300 days and found not guilty by the Tokyo District Court in 2003. Prosecutors appealed the ruling.

The verbal abuse is enough to alter a prisoner’s mental state, even without the direct threat of physical violence, said Yasuda, a campaigner against the death penalty and the chief defense lawyer for Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara.

“Investigative authorities detain people not out of concern that they might destroy evidence or escape, but in order to force them to confess,” he said.

Yasuda said that after he was charged he was transferred to a detention house and put under round-the-clock camera surveillance. “Still, the detention house was better than the substitute prison.

“How can we achieve the principle of presumption of innocence in Japan under such circumstances?” Yasuda asked.

Takao Sugiyama, who was once sentenced to life in prison for a 1967 robbery-murder in Ibaraki Prefecture, also suffered severe and unreasonable interrogations. “It is useless, whatever you say during a police investigation,” he said.

He was paroled in 1996 after serving 29 years in prison since his arrest. His petition for a retrial was accepted by the Mito District Court in September.

“I told police that I was not involved in the case, but they claimed somebody had testified that I was, and that I would be hanged if I refused to come clean,” Sugiyama said, referring to the “Fukawa Incident.”

He finally broke down and confessed during police grilling, but he pleaded not guilty in court.

“No lawyers were available while I was in police custody. I believed judges would accept what I said, but I was wrong,” he said.

As part of reform efforts, the JFBA has urged the government to abolish the substitute prison system, because the police control results in people being falsely accused, having their human rights violated and their right to counsel blocked.

“Pretrial detainees should be presumed innocent and thus guaranteed decent treatment as ordinary citizens, confined with minimal restrictions,” the lawyer group said.

It has also called for the government to videotape interrogations so suspects will not be forced to confess and their rights will be fully guaranteed.

The Human Rights Committee under the United Nations expressed concerns over Japan’s criminal justice system in 1998 in response to the government’s fourth periodical human rights report.

The committee “strongly” recommended that reforms be made to the practice of holding detainees for 23 days without bail or full access to lawyers.

It also voiced concern over the substitute prison system, which, though subject to a branch of police not dealing with investigations, is not under the control of a separate authority. This can increase the chances of detainees’ rights being abused.

Speaking at the Tokyo meeting, Makoto Teranaka, secretary general of Amnesty International Japan, said that Japan’s criminal justice system does not meet international standards as it attaches too much importance on confessions and does not allow lawyers to accompany suspects during interrogations.

Teranaka also stressed that videotaping interrogations would have merit even for the investigative side, saying, “Investigators would be prepared if suspects change their statements and counter possible claims that suspects were physically abused or forced to make confessions.”

Yasuda said, however, that the current system will not improve even if interrogations are recorded.

“While I was detained, friends advised me to plead guilty so I could be released on bail,” he told the audience. “I want you to understand that being detained is horrible enough to make my friends tell me to admit to something I did not commit.

“It is necessary to terminate the substitute prison system, where investigators are allowed to treat suspects at their own discretion, and to improve the current criminal justice system, under which people are detained based on groundless reasons, including the fear of destroying evidence or escape,” Yasuda said.

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