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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa

In Japan, guilt or innocence is just a matter of time.

Police and prosecutors, critics of the system say, have the upper hand. They can interrogate suspects for up to 23 days before charging — with no lawyers present.

And if there is an indictment, chances of acquittal are slim. Historically, about 99 percent of all criminal cases tried in Japan end in convictions.

“That’s because of the harsh environment the suspects go through prior to trial,” says New York attorney Michael Griffith, who specializes in defending Americans overseas. Griffith has been involved in several high-profile cases involving servicemembers on Okinawa. He says many defendants break down during the 23 days of intense questioning and sign confessions.

“It’s a form of torture,” he said in a telephone interview from his Long Island home. “They control everything — food, water, when you sleep, who you can see — eventually you’ll give them what they want.

“And once you’re indicted, it’s all over,” he said. “Ninety-five percent of the cases tried involve confessions. The few people acquitted in a Japanese court are the ones who didn’t confess.”

The numbers speak for themselves. According to the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations, only 7 percent of defendants plead not guilty. The conviction rate is 99.8 percent. In the U.S., one-fifth of all defendants in federal criminal courts plead not guilty and one-third of them are convicted.

Amnesty International calls the Japanese system of police custody, known as daiyo kangoku, a breeding ground for false confessions. Roughly translated, the phrase means “substitute prison.”

According to a study by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, an organization for defense lawyers, the main purpose of interrogations is to obtain confessions.

“There are no rules or regulations concerning the time of interrogation,” stated the report, titled “Prisons in Japan.”

“No laws specifically restrict the manner or time of interrogations or provide rapid redress for unjust methods of conducting them. The interrogation may be conducted without limit as to time, and a variety of methods to forcibly obtain confessions are used.”

And, although the Japanese Constitution guarantees the right to remain silent, police do not allow suspects to refuse interrogation, the report concluded.

“There are a variety of coercive torturous ways to obtain confessions,” the report stated. They included “making the suspect extremely exhausted both physically and mentally by questioning from early morning until late at night every day for a long period of time; the beating, poking and kicking of the suspect’s body by several policemen at the same time; binding fingers unbearably tight; hitting the table or turning over the chair on which the suspect is sitting; making the suspect stand in a fixed position; shouting close to his ear that he has committed the crime; … tormenting the suspect by showing color photos of the victim when the suspect is eating, or by waking him up every hour during the night.”

Such tactics have reportedly been used on Americans On Okinawa.

During his trial on two rape charges in 2005, Dag Allen Thompson, a civilian employee of Exchange New Car Sales at the time, claimed police and the prosecutor physically and mentally tortured him during daily interrogations.

Looking pale after almost 11 months of confinement, Thompson said in a September 2005 hearing that he was handcuffed to a chair and surrounded by detectives who yelled at him and poked and prodded at him whenever he dropped his head.

“They kept threatening the welfare of my family until I was in tears,” Thompson said. “After a long time, under extreme intimidation and when I was extremely distraught, being forced against my will, I wrote a statement.”

In March 2006, Thompson was convicted and sentenced to nine years of hard labor in a Japanese prison.

American attorney Annette Eddie-Callagain, who represented another American charged with rape, said investigators often questioned her client in 13-hour sessions, with a brief break for lunch.

The difference between the U.S. and Japanese justice systems is striking, says Masanori Takeda, a Japanese attorney on Okinawa who defended clients in San Francisco for two years.

“It begins just after you’re arrested,” he said. “In Japan you cannot have a lawyer present while being questioned by the authorities. Also, bail is nonexistent prior to indictment. And afterwards — well, there is no bail bond system in Japan, so if you are granted bail you have to find the money to put up on your own.”

There is also is no plea-bargaining in Japan, he said.

“In San Francisco, I always plead not guilty for my client and waited to see what the prosecution offered,” he said. “In Japan, if you plead not guilty the client can be subjected to a much more severe sentence.”

Takeda said everyone indicted in Japan has the right to a court-appointed attorney. But, he added, “There’s no system in place to allow for getting an attorney at public expense prior to indictment — the most important stage of the process.”

That’s because prosecutors have more power than their defense counterparts and are judged on their ability to win cases, he said.

“A single loss can end a prosecutor’s career,” he said.

One of those powers is the release of information gathered during an investigation. Under Japanese law, a prosecutor must disclose to the defense any evidence the state will use during the trial. However, all other information gathered, including possible exonerating evidence, can be withheld.

Justice system is documented in new movie

Japan’s justice system has gotten a lot of press lately, especially with a new movie released to critical acclaim in January by director Masayuki Suo.

The movie, “I Just Didn’t Do It,” is the story about a real-life young man who refused to buckle under the pressure to sign a confession to molesting a schoolgirl on a crowded train. After serving two years in prison, he won a retrial and was acquitted.

In a recent review of the film, the London Economist said false confessions are not uncommon in the Japanese justice system.

“A taxi driver in Toyama prefecture is arrested for rape and attempted rape, confesses to both crimes, is convicted after a brief trial and serves his three years in prison,” the Economist printed. “Meanwhile, another man, arrested on rape charges, also confesses to the two crimes the first man was convicted for. He, too, goes to jail and serves his time. Is this a story by Jorge Luis Borges, a case of trumped-up charges from the annals of Stalinist Russia? None of the above. It is a recent instance, and not an uncommon one, of the Japanese judicial system at work.”

The innocent young man had merely broken under the pressure.

“Facing up to a possible 23 days of continuous browbeating, or worse,” the Economist stated, “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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