Photo/IllutrationCarlos Ghosn is being held at the Tokyo Detention House in the capital's Katsushika Ward. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

The arrest last week of high-profile executive Carlos Ghosn has once again thrown a spotlight on Japan's legal system, long criticized for being out of kilter with international norms.

In addition to often lengthy detention periods, the Japanese system does not allow lawyers to be present when suspects are questioned by prosecutors.

And in cases handled by the special investigation division, not even family members are allowed to meet with detainees.

On Nov. 27, Gebran Bassil, Lebanon's minister of foreign affairs and emigrants, called Japanese Ambassador Matahiro Yamaguchi to his ministry in Beirut and asked that Ghosn's rights be respected. Ghosn's parents are Lebanese.

Bassil told Yamaguchi of his interest in Ghosn's case and asked that the investigation into alleged financial misconduct be wrapped up as quickly as possible.

Investigators alleged that Ghosn under-reported deferred compensation when he was chairman of Nissan Motor Co. in violation of the Financial Instruments and Exchange Law.

He was arrested Nov. 19, and dismissed as Nissan chairman three days later. A court approved his incarceration at the Tokyo Detention House on Nov. 21. In the event a further extension is granted, Ghosn could be held for 20 days until Dec. 10. And if he is re-arrested on new allegations, the detention period could extend until the end of the year.

According to judicial statistics, courts approve around 95 percent of requests by prosecutors to hold a suspect in detention. Only 32.5 percent of bail applications made after indictments have been approved.

Detentions were initially intended to prevent a suspect from fleeing the country or destroying evidence. However, criticism has been raised even in Japan that the long detention periods are a means to force confessions through long hours of grueling questioning by prosecutors.

At a meeting organized by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations on Nov. 27, a British legal expert expressed shock that the detention period in Japan could extend to at least 20 days since in Europe the average detention is about 24 hours.

Hiroyuki Kuzuno, a criminal law professor at Tokyo's Hitotsubashi University, said, "A criminal procedure that heavily depends on daily questioning over many hours is abnormal."

However, a veteran criminal court judge noted at the meeting that there have been moves in recent years to reconsider the possibility of suspects having a realistic chance of destroying evidence ahead of trial proceedings.

At the Tokyo District Court, about 12 percent of detention requests are rejected and about 70 percent of bail applications are approved.

That trend is prevalent mainly in large urban areas, but the figures often do not apply to cases handled by special investigation teams of district public prosecutor offices in key areas.

Still, Kana Sasakura, a criminal law professor at Konan University in Kobe who is also knowledgeable about criminal justice systems overseas, said the Ghosn case may be the right time to consider reviewing the Japanese system to bring it more in line with international standards.

"While the current focus is likely due to the fact a well-known individual was arrested, this issue has been around for a long time," she said. "A review should be made to revise the detention periods and also allow lawyers to be present during questioning."

Records show that those who deny guilt until their indictments tend to be detained for longer periods. Individuals who admit to wrongdoing are often released within the 20-day period of the initial detention period.

When Muneo Suzuki, then a Lower House member, was arrested in 2002 on suspicion of accepting bribes, he denied the allegations and spent 437 days in detention, a record for a Lower House member in the postwar period. Suzuki was later found guilty.