Confessions Forced : 'Bird Cages': Legal Trap for Japanese

Times Staff Writer

Masao Akabori hasn't had a good night's sleep in 35 years, not since he confessed to kidnaping, raping and strangling a 6-year-old girl in a mountain grove near the Oi River one spring day in 1954.

In fact, Akabori did not commit the crime. He immediately retracted his confession, saying he made it under police torture, and he steadfastly maintained his innocence over the years, long after he was sentenced to death and began praying for an early execution to end his torment.

The wheels of justice turn slowly in Japan, when they turn. On Jan. 31, Akabori walked out of a courtroom and boarded a bus for home after a judge found him innocent in a belated retrial. The government awarded him $937,000 in compensation for his false conviction and imprisonment--or $74 for each of the 12,668 days he spent in jail.

History of Mental Illness

Akabori, 59, a man with a speech impediment and a history of mental illness who was living as a vagrant at the time of his arrest, still suffers from insomnia. He only pretends to sleep when he lies down on his futon at night at his older brother's home.

He is bewildered. He still gets lost when he goes out for a stroll in his hometown of Shimada, about 125 miles southwest of Tokyo, and feels dizzy when he looks up at tall buildings that did not exist in 1954.

He is bitter, too. In more than a third of a century behind bars, he passed 24 years awaiting the gallows, cringing every time he heard the executioners' footsteps in the corridor as they came for one of his fellow inmates on Death Row. They would come at night and, in keeping with Japanese custom, they did not give advance notice of who was next to be hanged.

"I was terrified," Akabori said. "I never knew whether they were coming for the guy in the next cell, or whether it was my turn."

Underscores Injustice

Akabori is Japan's fourth inmate since 1983 to be found innocent after spending decades on Death Row because of coerced confessions. His case underscores a grave injustice that, according to defense attorneys and human rights advocates, continues to this day in Japan, despite the trappings of a modern criminal code.

Suspects can be held as long as 23 days before they are charged, are largely deprived of legal counsel and are routinely subjected to intensive, sometimes brutal interrogation methods that defense lawyers say virtually ensure that police will extract confessions--both real and false.

Critics are fighting proposed legal revisions, now pending before Parliament, that would help legitimize and perpetuate the brand of "due process" that led to Akabori's conviction.

At issue is the practice of detaining criminal suspects in police cells, informally called "bird cages," where investigators can restrict access by defense lawyers and interrogate the accused at will. The law ostensibly requires suspects to be transferred to Justice Ministry detention centers within three days after arrest, but this provision has not been enforced in 80 years.

Government officials say there is simply not enough room to house suspects before indictment and that it would cost nearly $4 billion to build proper facilities. They also argue that since 1980, abuses have been eliminated by separation of police authorities in charge of detention and investigation, and they add that the proposed legislation would help safeguard human rights.

Wants Law Revised

"The present law is 80 years old, and it's based in the old way of thinking," said Keisei Miyamoto, assistant deputy vice minister of justice. "We want to revise it to clarify the legal framework so mistreatment does not occur."

Defense lawyers say problems will persist as long as police keep their holdover suspects. During the initial period of detention, inexorable pressure is still applied on suspects to confess, said Futaba Igarashi, a lawyer campaigning against the legal revisions.

They are put under 24-hour surveillance in the bird cages, deprived of sleep, fed meager rations of food and denied the toilet for long periods, Igarashi and other defense advocates say. Suspects allegedly are coaxed into confessing by promises of release on bail or offers of the privilege of buying a hot meal; sometimes they are coerced with psychological threats, such as being told that members of their family might be arrested or that their businesses will be destroyed.

Reports of physical abuse during questioning are common. Suspects are sometimes handcuffed and tied to chairs in tiny interrogation cubicles, where they are shouted at by investigators during daily sessions lasting 10 hours or more.

In a report submitted last year to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Igarashi and her colleagues at the Assn. of Democratic Lawyers of Japan described two cases from 1985, one in which a suspect's jaw was broken and another in which a sharp object was forced under another suspect's fingernails. The suspects confessed.

"There is torture happening in Japan right now," Igarashi said. "After 23 days of this kind of interrogation, most everybody will confess."

A case that came to light last year illustrated the extent to which police power can be abused under the present system. Chisako Tezuka, then 44, related how male and female officers in Tokyo subjected her to a strip search, examined her vagina and forced her to urinate in view of investigators after her arrest on suspicion of obtaining a fraudulent bank loan. Police released her after 20 days in custody, having confirmed her claim that she had already paid back the loan.

Other anomalies abound. Michiko Gusoku, a housewife in Osaka, tried to play the role of good Samaritan last year by turning in an envelope she found containing $1,150 in cash. But an officer at a police box pocketed the money, and Gusoku was charged with theft and put under interrogation. She confessed, too.

Akira Yamashita of Yokohama admitted to murdering his wife in 1984. A judge acquitted him three years later, however, after finding that the woman had actually died of a heart attack.

Akabori, the veteran of Death Row, said his interrogators twisted his arms behind his back and pounded his face until it was bloody when he first refused to confess. Police officers play-acted the abduction, rape and murder scene for him to witness. They shouted the crime scenario at him and demanded that he recite it back, until he finally broke down.

He did not see a lawyer until after he had attached his thumbprint to a report, written by police, detailing his confession.

"I told them the sincere truth, but they wouldn't believe me," Akabori said. "When I got mad and refused to talk, they started the torture. After a while, I just didn't care anymore."

In the United States, criminal suspects are entitled to legal counsel immediately on arrest and have the right to remain silent and to refuse to testify against themselves in court. But Japanese prosecutors rely heavily on confessions, which have played a role in 65% to 75% of all criminal cases in recent years.

About 99% of all cases brought to trial result in convictions. Although this staggering record of jurisprudence is believed partly responsible for Japan's low crime rate, the achievement comes at the expense of human rights that are traditionally afforded to criminal suspects in many other countries, critics say.

Indigent suspects like Akabori have no access to public defenders until after they are charged; family members are not notified when suspects are taken into custody; bail is generally granted only to those who confess; there are no trials by jury.

"The Japanese think that if someone is arrested, he must be a scoundrel, and scoundrels should be thrown in jail," said Kazuo Ito, a defense lawyer active in the Japan Civil Liberties Union. "The feeling remains that it's all right to restrict the rights of people who are accused of wrongdoing."

A recent landmark Supreme Court decision on note-taking in the courtroom illustrated the extent to which some procedures in the criminal justice system have remained arcane holdovers from Japan's prewar authoritarian days, activist lawyers say.

Lawrence Repeta, a Seattle-based American lawyer who worked here in the early 1980s, won a four-year court battle in which he contended that his constitutional "right to know" was violated by a judge who refused to let him take notes during a securities fraud trial he was studying. Until last month's decision, judges routinely barred note-taking by anyone other than officially sanctioned news reporters.

"The Japanese judiciary is a very authoritarian institution," Repeta said. "Judges are subjected to great pressure from above to give decisions that protect public authority, and rarely hand down decisions that protect human rights."

Japan's postwar constitution prohibits convictions in cases where there is no incriminating evidence other than a suspect's confession. Akabori's conviction and death sentence were upheld by the Supreme Court in 1960, however, despite the lack of material evidence.

"It's just like the prewar days--democracy has not taken root yet in Japan," said Gen Mori, 78, a former teacher, Shimada city council member and one of Akabori's supporters, who spent nearly a year in prison during World War II on political charges. "They may have revised the criminal codes, but the mentality is the same."

The judiciary remains strongly disposed toward accepting the arguments of prosecutors, even when defendants rescind confessions that they say were made under duress, said Igarashi, the attorney.

"Judges don't challenge anything when the police report a suspect is guilty," she said. "The police are all-powerful, and a trial is nothing more than a ceremony."

Yet the judiciary is slowly responding to appeals in the most flagrant examples of aborted justice.

The Supreme Court has upheld the sentences of as many as 37 of the 86 people now on Death Row, but 12 of them have applied or are preparing to apply for retrials, according to the Tokyo-based Center for the Abolition of the Death Penalty.

Sayoko Kikuchi, an official of the center, said four of those inmates have credible claims to innocence, similar to Akabori's case, while the others are attempting to introduce mitigating evidence that would justify reduced sentences.

Death Sentences Increasing

But death sentences are on the rise, despite the wave of sensational retrials this decade and an actual decrease in the number of murders, Kikuchi said. Although executions are secret, the center estimates that two or three convicts are hanged every year. The most recent reported executions were last June, in Osaka.

Akabori said he plans to adapt to life outside jail by living modestly, venturing out of Shimada occasionally to give speeches. He will give about half his $937,000 wrongful-imprisonment award to his team of 20 lawyers--one of whom represented him for 34 years free of charge. He will keep some of the money to support himself and donate the rest to the network of grass-roots organizations that oppose the death penalty and advocate the rights of the accused--the people who saved his life.

"The death penalty is Japan's shame," said Akabori, a gray-haired man with a high-strung but gentle disposition. "What happened to me shouldn't be allowed to happen again. I'm going to devote myself to that cause."

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