Sunday, February 11, 2007

Japanese justice | Confess and be done with it | Economist.com

Japanese justice | Confess and be done with it | Economist.com

The film, which was premièred in America and Britain before opening in Japan, depicts how suspects, whether guilty or innocent, are brutalised by the Japanese police, and how the judges side with the prosecutors. Mr Suo argues that suspects are presumed guilty until proven innocent, and that the odds are stacked massively against them being so proven.

The statistics would seem to bear him out. Japan is unique among democratic countries in that confessions are obtained from 95% of all people arrested, and that its courts convict 99.9% of all the suspects brought before them. Prosecutors are ashamed of being involved in an acquittal and fear that losing a case will destroy their careers. Judges get promotion for the speed with which they process their case-loads. And juries do not exist, though there is talk of introducing a watered-down system called saiban-in for open-and-shut cases. Apparently, members of the public are not to be trusted with cases that might involve special knowledge. Those will still be heard and ruled on—as are all cases in Japan today—by judges alone.

Despite Article 38 of the Japanese constitution, which guarantees an accused person's right to remain silent, the police and the prosecutors put maximum emphasis on obtaining a confession rather than building a case based on evidence. The official view is that confession is an essential first step in rehabilitating offenders. Japanese judges tend to hand down lighter sentences when confessions are accompanied by demonstrations of remorse. Even more important, prosecutors have the right to ask for lenient sentences when the accused has been especially co-operative.

It is how the police obtain these confessions that troubles human-rights activists. A suspect can be held for 48 hours without legal counsel or contact with the outside world. After that, he or she is turned over to the public prosecutor for another 24 hours of grilling. A judge can then grant a further ten days of detention, which can be renewed for another ten days.

Japan's constitution also states that confessions obtained under compulsion, torture or threat, or after prolonged periods of detention, cannot be admitted as evidence. Yet threats and even torture are reckoned to be used widely in detention centres—especially as interrogators are not required to record their interviews. Accidental death during custody happens suspiciously often. Facing up to a possible 23 days of continuous browbeating, or worse, could persuade many wrongfully arrested people to accept their fate and sign a confession as the quickest way to put the whole sorry mess behind them.

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