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A police officer stands guard at the Atomic Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, ahead of the G7 Leaders' Summit, on May 16. Japan’s Justice Ministry rejects accusations of 'hostage justice,' saying the country’s criminal justice system does not force confessions.PHILIP FONG/AFP/Getty Images

Yusuke Doi’s music career was just taking off. The 21-year-old had signed a contract with a record company to produce his first album. Then the police called.

Around 10,000 yen ($98) had been stolen from a convenience store near Mr. Doi’s home in Osaka, Japan, in 2012, and his fingerprints had been found on a door. Mr. Doi denied robbing the shop, or even being there at the time of the crime, but would find himself plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare as he spent the next 300 days in detention, was denied bail nine times, held in isolation and prevented from speaking to his family for months.

Mr. Doi was eventually acquitted, but his experience is all too familiar for those caught up in what is known as Japan’s “hostage justice system,” as documented in a new report by Human Rights Watch. It interviewed 30 former detainees and dozens of experts to highlight the scale of the issue. The group is trying to renew pressure for change as a Japanese government committee considers the matter.

“Japan has a legal system widely regarded internationally as competent and impartial, but its criminal justice system functions on laws, procedures and practices that systematically violate the rights of accused persons,” the HRW report said. “These practices cause great personal hardship and lead to wrongful convictions. They violate internationally guaranteed rights to due process and a fair trial, and to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.”

Many of the problems identified by researchers have been highlighted for years, by HRW and other rights groups, as well as the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which in 2020 criticized the detention of former Nissan executive Carlos Ghosn, who was held in pretrial detention for 130 days, as “arbitrary” and “fundamentally unfair.”

Japan’s Justice Ministry rejects accusations of “hostage justice,” saying the country’s criminal justice system “does not force confessions by unduly holding suspects and defendants in custody,” and that suspects’ rights are defended.

Mr. Ghosn’s treatment and eventual dramatic flight from Japan attracted international attention, as well as criticism back home and renewed calls for change. This has been slow in coming however, and the last government panel did not make any recommendations before it disbanded in late 2020. A 10-member committee made up largely of police and prosecutors has been examining the issue since last year but is still months away from compiling any findings.

Despite years of activists pushing for change, there is often little public awareness of flaws in the criminal justice system, said financier Nobumasa Yokoo, who was held in pretrial detention for 996 days in the 2010s after he was implicated in an accounting scandal at the optical equipment manufacturer Olympus.

“Like many other Japanese, I had no interest or knowledge about the reality of Japan’s justice system. Everyone, including myself, does not know the reality until they are caught up by the system,” Mr. Yokoo told The Globe and Mail. “Japanese people are indifferent to the problem.”

According to HRW, the main problem stems from the fact prosecutors in Japan “exercise wide and often unchecked power.” Judges rarely dismiss cases, and prosecutors’ applications to deny bail are approved more than 94 per cent of the time. Prosecutors can withhold evidence and impose huge pressure on suspects to confess, HRW said, with trials often reduced to “ceremonies for ratifying prosecutors’ decisions,” in the words of academic Kana Sasakura.

“If you admit to the crime you’re arrested for, you’re released on bail relatively quickly. However, if you dispute the charges or claim innocence you will be detained longer,” former prosecutor Nobuo Gohara told the Japan Times in 2019. “You are basically held hostage until you give the prosecutors what they want. This is not how a criminal justice system should work in a healthy society.”

Shinobu Yamagishi, who was eventually acquitted of embezzlement charges against him, said he was held for 248 days following his initial arrest in 2019, and denied bail six times. He considered making a false confession to escape isolation, and said his detention hampered his defence, limiting access to his legal team.

“If I had not had the money to organize the dream team defence team, I would have gotten a false conviction,” he told HRW researchers. “I think it is not right to be found innocent if you had money, and to be guilty if you did not have money.”

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