Human rights violations in prisons are nothing new. But what happened last year at Nagoya Prison is alarming. Six prison guards, including a deputy warden, stand accused of physical abuses that resulted in the death of an inmate and caused severe injury to another. On the first day of their trial earlier this week, all but one defendant denied the charges, saying that they had not used a restraining device — a leather belt with manacles — to punish the prisoners for disobedience and that the “accidents” had occurred in the line of official duty.

The death of one prisoner is attributed to abdominal injuries and blood-flow obstruction because of excessively tight cinching of the leather belt. The other prisoner suffered internal bleeding that is said to have required more than two months of treatment. Prosecutors must find out exactly what happened in the prison.

Investigations have revealed that leather restraints have been used at other prisons as a means of punishment, but these are not the only cases of prison brutality. In an incident that occurred in 2001, also at Nagoya Prison, a guard fatally abused an inmate by shooting water from a high-pressure fire hose into his anus.

The Justice Ministry must better clarify publicly the duties and responsibilities of prison guards, who are classified as special civil servants. The ministry’s decision to scrap all leather belts and manacles — numbering an estimated 1,000 units or more throughout the country — within six months is a step in the right direction. Any other correctional devices that involve inhuman treatment also must be discarded.

Human rights abuses are not confined to prisons. Detainees in police cells and immigration facilities also have been mistreated. The government must deal severely with these violations, which have attracted international attention.

In a U.N. review of Japanese prison practices in 1998, one member of a human rights committee noted that there was no effective relief mechanism for victims of bullying and brutality. Another member called for the creation of a prison supervisory agency. In a report to the government, the committee recommended the establishment of an independent body to investigate complaints of “unfair treatment” by police and immigration authorities. The proposal is still pending. The government should consider it promptly and seriously. A third-party commission, excluding Justice Ministry officials and prosecutors, would be welcome.

It is not that Japan has no relief system for prisoners. The Prison Law provides for a petition system, which allows prisoners to appeal directly to the justice minister. However, this system exists all but in name. In the past two years, for example, there have been about 250 complaints, including reports of assaults on manacled prisoners, but to our knowledge, no prison guards involved have ever received disciplinary action under the National Civil Service Law. This makes a strong case for an independent watchdog.

There is also a need to define the prisoner’s rights in clear-cut terms. Both the government and the Diet should start discussing what rights should be recognized for prisoners. This is not to say that prison authorities should deal leniently with criminals. The point is that all prisoners, including serious offenders such as murderers, must be legally assured of their human rights.

That brings to mind the Prison Law, which was enacted in 1908 under the Meiji Constitution. Since the end of World War II, the Justice Ministry has applied the law in ways that conform to the present democratic Constitution, by issuing various regulations and directives. However, this statute from the Meiji Era has almost no provisions governing prisoners’ rights.

The ministry has taken the initiative for legislative action, but to no avail. One bill was designed partly to give permanent status to police cells known as “substitute prisons,” which have come under criticism from human rights groups. Another bill was aimed at improving the conditions of prisons and other criminal facilities. Both measures were killed because of objections from the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and other concerned organizations.

It is high time that the ministry took the initiative again to address pending problems. For a start, it should order prisons to promptly take steps to prevent any further human rights abuses. At the same time, the ministry should begin drafting a new bill to revise the Prison Law with a focus on the treatment of inmates.

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