Photo/Illutration A special criminal trial for a prosecuted leprosy patient at the National Sanatorium Kikuchi Keifuen in Kumamoto Prefecture in 1950s. The defendant in this photo is different from the person who was convicted seven decades ago and later executed. (Provided by the legal team for the plaintiffs)

A local Japanese court has ruled that special trials involving leprosy patients that were held at isolation facilities nearly seven decades ago were unconstitutional.

The Kumamoto District Court on Feb. 26 declared that the special criminal trials for prosecuted leprosy patients held outside ordinary courtrooms at facilities like leprosy sanatoriums violated the constitutional principle of equality under the law.

The fact that a court has adjudged a past practice of the judiciary to be a violation of the Constitution should be taken very seriously.

The lawsuit filed against the government concerned a special trial over an old murder case held in the 1950s at the National Sanatorium Kikuchi Keifuen in Kumamoto Prefecture.

A man who was suspected of having Hansen’s disease and urged to enter a sanatorium was indicted for killing a former local government official and was given the death sentence in the special trial. The convict was executed in 1962 after his request for a retrial was turned down three times.

The court law allows trials to be held outside of a courtroom if the Supreme Court decides that is necessary for some compelling reasons. But this special procedure should be restricted to cases of really uncontrollable circumstances.

In the case of the murder in Kumamoto Prefecture, however, the court decided to hold the trial at the sanatorium without considering whether there were good reasons to do so.

In the Feb. 26 ruling, the Kumamoto District Court said the decision at that time represented discrimination based on the defendant’s disease and might also have violated the constitutional provision stating, “In all criminal cases the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial tribunal.”

Such special trials were held for a total of 113 criminal cases during the three decades until 1977. Of the total, 95 involved leprosy patients.

Four years ago, the Supreme Court released the report over the issue in which it acknowledged that the special trials for indicted leprosy patients promoted prejudice and discrimination against people with the disease in society. The top court also expressed deep regret and apologized for degrading their reputation and dignity.

As an effective treatment for the disease became widely available, the top court argued, the special trials for Hansen’s disease patients should have been considered illegal from 1960 at the latest.

But the Supreme Court stopped short of calling the practice unconstitutional, drawing criticism from an expert committee it set up to deal with the matter and an organization of former patients.

The district court’s ruling should be praised as a major step forward from where the Supreme Court’s report stopped.

As for the government’s old policy of compulsory segregation for leprosy patients, which conferred pariah status on those with the disease, in 2001 then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s administration apologized to former patients.

In 2019, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government released a statement formally apologizing to family members of former patients.

Each of these official apologies was followed by the enactment of a new law to pay compensation to former patients and take other remedial measures. Both actions were prompted by a court ruling that declared the past segregation program to be unlawful.

The judiciary has played a certain role in redressing the violation of human rights. But the Kumamoto District Court’s ruling can be considered a major landmark in the process of restoring the dignity of former patients because it admits that the judiciary made a big mistake from the viewpoint of the Constitution.

The plaintiffs including former patients who still live in the sanatorium demanded a retrial for the man who was convicted in the special trial seven decades ago and later executed. But the court rejected their argument.

Still, the court’s ruling is a scathing indictment against the past judicial proceedings, which it says violated the Constitution.

Prosecutors, as representatives of the public interest, should confront the huge implications of the ruling and change their traditional policy of not seeking a retrial of the case.

The folly of forcibly segregating leprosy patients under a policy that inflicted enormous suffering on both patients and their families must never be repeated.

The process of paying compensation to the families of this policy’s victims, which has just begun, needs to be kept proceeding steadily. Constant efforts should also be made in the areas of education, employee training and public awareness to devise and take necessary and effective measures to stamp out leprosy-related prejudice and discrimination.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 1