Courts in Japan are struggling to continue holding criminal trials amid COVID-19, as courtrooms fall into the category of enclosed spaces with poor ventilation and involving close contact — a condition believed to have a high risk of causing a cluster of infections.
After the government declared on April 7 a state of emergency over the pandemic for Tokyo and six other prefectures, courts in the areas postponed many trials.
But according to a judicial official, "There are trials that cannot be postponed for human rights reasons."
On April 8, the trial of a person accused in a drug case was held at Tokyo District Court. While 20 gallery seats were available in the windowless courtroom, only five people, including reporters, watched the trial.
Hearings for trials scheduled during the state of emergency period, which runs until May 6, have been postponed in principle, including cases in which defendants have been released on bail.
But decisions on whether to hold trials for cases involving detained defendants seeking suspended sentences, or claiming innocence, are decided through discussions among judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers, because they may be released depending on the outcomes of the trials, sources familiar with the situation said.
"To be honest, we want to hold trials with no spectators for safety from the coronavirus," an official at a court said.
But the nation's Constitution stipulates that trials must be held in open courts. It is, therefore, difficult for courts to fully refuse courtroom observers, in order to make trials fair and neutral.
With the virus outbreak spreading across the country, the Supreme Court issued a directive in early March for adequate space to be set between the gallery seats for observers.
Tokyo District Court has reduced the number of observer seats to some 40 percent of the normal level. But courtrooms remain enclosed, continuing to pose the risk of infections spreading among participants and spectators if any of them is infected with the virus.
"How should we ensure safety?" asked an official at another court.
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