In a landmark verdict, the Tokyo District Court on Wednesday ruled that immigration officials were responsible for the death of a Ghanaian man they were forcibly deporting in 2010.

Finding that the officials “illegally” used excessive force to subdue Abubakar Awudu Suraj aboard a plane, the court ordered the government to pay about ¥5 million to his Japanese wife and his mother, who lives in Ghana.

The pair had sought more than ¥130 million in damages, arguing that Suraj, who was 45 at the time, suffocated while being subjected to abuse.

It’s the first time a court has ordered immigration officials to pay damages for the death of a foreigner they mistreated.

Caught overstaying his visa in 2006, Suraj was ordered deported. In March 2010, accompanied by a group of immigration officials, he was taken aboard a private jet at Narita airport.

Prior to takeoff, officials bound his arms and legs, stuffed a towel in his mouth and bent him forcibly forward, cutting off his air supply. They said later they were concerned Suraj might put up a violent struggle.

“Their effort to restrain him crossed the line to such an extent it can never be defended as necessary and reasonable,” presiding Judge Hisaki Kobayashi said, slamming their act as “dangerous” and “illegal.”

“I’m truly glad what they did to my husband was found illegal. That was a huge load off my mind,” Suraj’s 52-year-old wife, who wants to remain anonymous, said after the ruling.

Now that immigration authorities have been found culpable for his death, “I demand an official apology from the Justice Ministry and sincerely hope it will improve the way foreigners are deported,” she said.

At issue was the exact cause of Suraj’s death. A second autopsy carried out two years after his death revealed that Suraj had a cystic tumor of the atrioventricular node (CTAVN), a minor heart condition.

Immigration authorities had argued that Suraj “happened to” suffer an attack at precisely the moment they restrained him, causing an erratic heartbeat that led to his death — an argument the court rejected.

Ruling for the plaintiffs, the court said: “With (Suraj) gagged with a towel and forced into a slouching posture, he experienced grave breathing difficulties and died of suffocation.”

The court, however, awarded far less in damages than the plaintiffs sought. The ruling pointed out that prior to March 2010 Suraj had foiled a deportation attempt by “screaming” and “clinging firmly to an airport pillar.”

During the second deportation attempt, Suraj likewise remained defiant, the ruling said. He reportedly refused to board the jet and expressed the intention to be disobedient, even suggesting he wanted to kill himself.

Suraj, therefore, was “gravely at fault” for causing the officials to restrain him, it said. The court also calculated the compensation based on what Suraj would have earned in Ghana, not in Japan, as demanded by the plaintiffs.

Jotaro Kato, a representative of the group Asian People’s Friendship who has fought tirelessly for Suraj’s family, nonetheless lauded the court ruling as a trailblazing acknowledgment of the human rights of foreign deportees.

“We would like to keep a close eye on how seriously immigration will take this ruling to change its attitude toward foreigners in the right direction,” Kato said.

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.