National / Crime & Legal

Justice chief Masako Mori defends Japan's judicial system but says debate could spark change

by Magdalena Osumi

Staff Writer

Justice Minister Masako Mori has hinted the government may push for amending the criminal justice system if debate over its fairness continues at the national level.

In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times, however, Mori said changes are not yet on the agenda and that the system works, for now.

A month has passed since ex-Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn jumped bail and reportedly fled Japan in an audio equipment box loaded onto a private jet that took him to Lebanon via Turkey. Since his escape and subsequent news conference in Lebanon, Mori has been fending off critics who have branded Japan’s system “hostage justice.”

Among the main criticisms are Japan’s practice of prolonging detentions, banning the presence of defense attorneys during questioning, and constant leaks against defendants that favor prosecutors.

In an interview Friday, Mori defended the system, saying that keeping defense lawyers out of interrogations is needed so investigators can get the facts and extract statements.

“In Japan, interrogation often remains the sole means to extract statements from suspects,” she said. “It’s a matter of balance between all investigation methods and interrogation is in the center of this process.”

Letting defense lawyers sit in on interrogations could, for example, spark a search for other options, she asserted. But the use of methods alarming to human rights advocates is limited by legal curbs in Japan, and there are few options but to stick to the current interrogation method, she said. By law, wiretapping and undercover work are only used in a very limited number of cases.

“Every crime has a victim and police and prosecutors seek to identify the real culprit. These procedures are designed to find the criminal, and there are various ways to investigate alleged crimes, including wiretapping, which is much more frequently used abroad, for instance in the U.S., than in Japan,” the minister said.

Ghosn said he was subjected to daylong interrogations and kept in conditions that were aimed at forcing him to confess.

Mori said Ghosn’s sessions were recorded on video.

“But I’m not saying the system is perfect,” she said, noting changes would require revising laws aimed at protecting victims’ rights, as well as the rights of the accused.

Mori said she will push for changing security measures and bail conditions as swiftly as possible to address the increase in bail jumping in Japan. Mori said she plans to raise the introduction of tracking devices at a legislative council that will start in February.

“In the past, discussions on legal procedures in the criminal system continued for years, but I want to focus solely on bail conditions to spur policy changes,” Mori said.

Ghosn entered the Tokyo Detention House in November 2018. He was granted bail in March 2019 and a month later despite prosecutors’ claims he was a flight risk and might tamper with evidence.

Later, he reportedly learned one of his two trials would be delayed until April 2021 instead of September 2020. At least one was expected to start in April 2020. One expert said this may have been caused by Ghosn’s decision to change lawyers.

On Thursday, a Japanese court issued a fresh arrest warrant for Ghosn for leaving the country illegally.

Mori refused to comment further on the case but said the government is working with international organizations to bring the fugitive auto exec back to Japan.

“I want him to come to Japan and face trial,” Mori said.

Japan has extradition treaties with only two nations: South Korea and the United States. Mori said it was necessary to examine the need for such international agreements in consideration for (differences in) judicial systems of potential partner countries. She noted that such treaties should follow a debate on whether to give up Japanese suspects as well.

If Japan were to pursue such treaties, however, Mori claimed the negotiations would not be affected by Japan’s use of the death penalty, which has long been criticized internationally by human rights advocates.

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