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Court case may shine light on Japan's interrogations

May 26, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

TOKYO — For the first time, a DVD recording of a suspect confessing his crime to police was admitted as evidence in a Japanese court Friday, a move that could lead to stricter checks on the lengthy, secret police interrogations that defense lawyers say result in pressure on suspects to make false confessions.

Prosecutors and police have long resisted demands from human rights activists and lawyers to record their questioning of suspects, who can be held without charge for 23 days in special police cells with limited access to defense lawyers.

But a court case here may open the way for greater oversight of the confession-based investigation culture.

Prosecutors record interrogation sessions only in cases of their choosing, and it was they who introduced the recording played during a murder trial in Tokyo District Court on Friday. The prosecution was seeking to demonstrate the credibility of a confession by a man accused of plotting the killing in a scheme to acquire insurance money.

Prosecutors asked the court to admit the recording as evidence when the accused changed aspects of his story during testimony.

But even though the prosecutors' move was aimed at bolstering their case, it may also serve as a precedent for those who claim they confessed under coercion to demand that recordings of their interrogations be played in court as well.

Last week, the United Nations' Committee Against Torture amplified Japanese activists' call for an end to the nation's system of pretrial detention of suspects in police stations without access to lawyers.

The committee said Japanese prosecutors were overly dependent on extracting confessions through long periods of incarceration and unlimited time for questioning, an investigative method that has resulted in an almost 100% conviction rate for cases that go to trial.

The committee demanded the 23-day holding period be shortened to match standards in other countries. And it said interrogations should be monitored by independent observers as well as recorded, so courts can later judge whether confessions may have been obtained through coercion.

"The Japanese police should now admit that they cannot investigate people for 23 days in detention," said Eiichi Kaido, a lawyer who has been active in the campaign by Japanese bar associations to reform the system. "No other countries have such a long detention period. The U.N. report means the Japanese legal system has to be amended."

The Justice Ministry said only that it was studying the U.N. report, noting that its recommendations cut across several government jurisdictions.

"We will examine it in a prudent manner and, depending on the content, will respond to it appropriately," said Hiroshi Kikuchi of the ministry's Criminal Affairs Bureau.

The government has shown little inclination to radically overhaul a system that is defended by police and that attracts little criticism from the Japanese public or media. The U.N. review of the justice system was largely ignored by media here, despite its charge that the Japanese system fails to meet minimal international standards in many areas.

The U.N. report also takes issue with Japan's treatment of death row prisoners, noting that they await execution in solitary confinement that in some cases has stretched more than 30 years. It says Japan should consider commuting death sentences when the execution has been extensively delayed.

And it criticizes the Japanese practice of notifying prisoners of their execution only hours before it takes place. The U.N. condemned "the unnecessary secrecy and arbitrariness surrounding the time of the execution," saying the measure imposes a psychological strain on prisoners and their families "that could amount to torture."

bruce.wallace@latimes.com

Naoko Nishiwaki of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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