National / Crime & Legal

Japan's top court to apologize to ex-leprosy patients over segregation policy


The Supreme Court is considering making a rare apology to former leprosy patients for the past practice of trying them outside standard courtrooms for fear of infection, sources close to the matter said Thursday.

The top court aims to finalize its plan at a meeting of all 15 justices of the bench and apologize publicly in a report to be released soon, according to the sources.

The envisioned move, however, would have no bearing on individual cases, and is not expected to pave the way for any retrials.

Under Japan law, trials can be held outside court buildings if the Supreme Court finds it necessary.

Such special courts were convened in 95 cases between 1948 and 1972 at isolated sanatoriums and other facilities for leprosy patients, according to the Supreme Court.

“It is regrettable that the top court is unlikely to agree to retrials in individual cases,” said Hirofumi Uchida, a professor at Kobe Gakuin University. If the bereaved families of the former patients and others tried in special courts request retrials, the court should grant them “in order to restore their honor,” he said.

In a probe started in May 2014, the court has found that its administrative office failed to carefully consider the need to hold outside trials and that this was likely based on discriminatory attitudes toward leprosy patients, which was rooted in misconceptions about the disease.

The probe was conducted after a group of former leprosy patients called for the use of special courts to be examined amid concerns it breached the constitutional rule that a criminal trial must be open to the public.

The top court also decided last July to set up a panel of experts, including academics and lawyers, to hear their opinions.

Michiyasu Fujisaki, secretary general of the national chamber of Hansen’s disease patients, said that if the Supreme Court apologizes over the matter it would be “epoch-making” but “long overdue.”

The state acknowledged in May 2001 that its segregation policy against leprosy patients was wrong and apologized.

Although the disease is only mildly contagious, Japan’s leprosy patients were discriminated against and confined to sanatoriums for decades under a 1931 law that continued through to 1996.

In early March, lawyers urged former leprosy patients in Japan to file for state compensation over decades of mistreatment before their right to make such claims expire at the end of the month.

The state offers redress to former Hansen’s disease patients if they file lawsuits against the state over its past quarantine policy, which has been ruled unconstitutional by a court.

Still, lawyers say many former patients remain hesitant, fearing their medical histories could become known.