The treatment of suspects arrested for questioning in criminal cases and of defendants undergoing trial has long been a human-rights issue in Japan. This problem will be partially resolved by a government bill to be sent to the Diet. Still, a bigger problem exists: the use of police holding cells as substitute detention facilities.

The nation has 114 detention and branch detention houses. But 98.3 percent of arrested criminal suspects and criminal-trial defendants are held in police cells. Only 1.7 percent are placed in genuine detention facilities.

This means that the conditions in which most criminal suspects and defendants are held are highly questionable under today’s human-rights standards. The basis for this peculiar situation, which has existed for the past 98 years, is the rather obscure Article 1, Section 3 of the 1908 former Prison Law, which permits the use of lockups attached to police stations as substitute “prisons.”

Under this arrangement, police officers may interrogate suspects at their pleasure, since the facilities are inside police compounds. Lawyers and human-rights activists have pointed out that investigators have plenty of time to extract confessions that suit scenarios put forth by the police and then write statements based on such confessions.

Instances of false accusations have arisen in this way. A well-known example is the 1951 Yakai murder case in Yamaguchi Prefecture, in which an elderly couple were murdered. After seven trials, four of the five defendants in 1968 were found to have been victims of false charges. In the 1980s, four death-row inmates were found innocent in retrials on the grounds of false charges.

To Japan’s disgrace, the existing detention arrangement has been criticized twice by the U.N. Committee for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

After the Justice Ministry and the National Police Agency established an experts’ committee on the treatment of detainees, committee members had a heated discussion on the use of police cells as substitute detention facilities. But the opinion has prevailed that such facilities are necessary for efficient police work, and the Justice Ministry supported that view.

As a result, the committee has come up with compromise recommendations that include measures to protect and enhance the human rights of detainees while allowing police to continue using police cells for detention. Other recommendations are that police officers assigned to investigation, including interrogation, must not be engaged in detention-related work.

The new bill, to be based on the recommendations, would provide a legal basis of sorts for substitute detention facilities. It would amount to a revision of the law on criminal facilities and prisoner treatment, enacted last year to improve human-rights protection for prisoners.

The bill would differentiate the legal status of detainees from that of prisoners. The committee’s recommendations call for allowing lawyers and detainees to communicate by telephone or fax, and letting lawyers visit detainees at night and on holidays.

Another proposal is for setting up in each prefecture a detention-facility inspection committee composed of attorneys and other citizens. Committee members would be charged with visiting and meeting with detainees to promote the transparency of the detention process. There is also a proposal for a mechanism allowing detainees to express complaints to the prefectural public-safety commission, which oversees the police in each prefecture.

At present, communication between lawyers and detainees is limited to in-person meetings and letters. Communication by telephone or fax, even if lawyers must to go to designated police stations or public prosecutor’s offices to begin the communication, would save lawyers lots of time.

Smooth communication between lawyers and detainees will become all the more important as early as May 2009 when hearings are expected to be held almost every day for defendants following the introduction of a lay judge system. Citizens will sit with judges to preside over trials in serious crimes such as murder and homicide.

The new bill should incorporate as many of the committee’s proposals as possible. For its part, the government should address, in earnest and as quickly as possible, the most important principle of all — holding detainees in detention houses operated under the auspices of the Justice Ministry, away from police investigators.

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