The Supreme Court apologized Monday to former leprosy patients for allowing lower courts to hold criminal trials involving them outside standard courtrooms over ungrounded fears about the spread of infection, saying such false practices were unlawful and further accelerated discrimination.
In a 60-page report, the top court stated that “discriminatory handling was strongly suspected” for special trials held after 1960, and violated the laws governing court procedures.
It said the Supreme Court granted lower courts permission to hold such trials at sanitariums and other facilities for leprosy patients without fully examining each case.
The report, however, did not admit that the Supreme Court violated the principle of open trials as stipulated by the Constitution, as demanded by groups of former leprosy patients. It claimed there was a lack of sufficient data to back up the accusation.
As for the constitutional right of the principle of equality, Supreme Court Secretary-General Yukihiko Imasaki only said its violation was “strongly suspected.”
Such discriminatory practices “encouraged prejudice and discrimination against the patients, and furthermore, impaired their integrity and dignity,” the report said. “(We) deeply regret it and apologize to the patients.”
The apology was issued following a probe that began in May 2014 at the request of groups of former leprosy patients. The court conducted hearings with former patients and starting last September also held discussions with a panel of experts.
Imasaki said the court is not currently planning to conduct further investigations into the issue, saying full-fledged examinations have already been made.
The Court Law stipulates that trials should be held at courts or their branches, but also allows them to be held outside court buildings if the Supreme Court deems it necessary.
According to the Supreme Court, between 1948 and 1972 it approved special locations for 95 trials involving leprosy patients out of 96 requests from lower courts.
Among the 95 cases, 27 were held after 1960, the year in which the Kumamoto District Court said the segregation policy was no longer necessary.
The government officially acknowledged in 2001 its quarantine policy against leprosy patients was mistaken and apologized.
Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is a chronic infectious disease whose symptoms include granulomas of the skin, but it is only mildly contagious.
Japan’s leprosy patients were discriminated against and confined in isolated government-run sanitariums for decades until 1996 when the law to quarantine leprosy patients was abolished.
Following Monday’s landmark apology, the plaintiffs, comprised of three groups of former Hansen’s disease patients, said in a statement that while they pay “deep respect” to the court’s examination, they regretted that it didn’t admit to violating the Constitution.
Staff writer Shusuke Murai contributed to this report