Photo/Illutration Lawyers of former Vietnamese technical intern trainee Le Thi Thuy Linh, who appears in the screen online, held a news conference in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward shortly after her acquittal was declared by the Supreme Court on March 24. (Ikuro Aiba)

The acquittal of a former Vietnamese technical intern trainee accused of abandoning the bodies of her stillborn twins should lead to effective policy measures to ensure that cases of this nature never happen again.

The woman found herself isolated with no means of receiving appropriate support.

The Supreme Court on March 24 overturned the former trainee’s conviction, ruling that her actions did not constitute the crime of abandonment of corpses. She was charged with concealing the bodies in her room for about a day.

The woman, 24-year-old Le Thi Thuy Linh, was working at a mandarin orange farm in Kumamoto Prefecture. She feared she would be sent back to Vietnam if her pregnancy became known. As a result, she could not consult with anybody and ended up delivering stillborn male twins in her room at the farm in November 2020. 

She wrapped the remains in a towel, put them inside a cardboard box and placed it on a shelf at home. In her trials at the Kumamoto District Court and the Fukuoka High Court, Linh was found guilty of abandoning the corpses and handed suspended prison sentences.

The top court ruling defined abandonment of a corpse as “an act of abandoning and concealing a dead body in a way that cannot be deemed as burial according to a social or religious ritual or custom.”

Based on this definition, the ruling said Linh’s act did not constitute a criminal act because she treated the bodies with dignity.

In many cases of this kind, women are found guilty of corpse abandonment because they failed to observe even the most basic of customs after delivering a stillborn without assistance. Still, such acts are totally different in nature from concealing or discarding a dead body after a murder.

In effect, the Supreme Court ruling rigorously urged investigators and judicial officers to make fair and objective assessments of all mitigating factors concerning such cases.

The Vietnamese trainee was not suspected of having committed murder. Police should have counseled her on the procedures for cremation instead of arresting and detaining her.

In many similar cases, the defendants and their lawyers have accepted suspended sentences on grounds it was the best they could hope for. The entire legal approach to dealing with such cases should be reviewed.

A system urgently needs to be established to ensure that women in such situations with no one to turn to get swift and easy access to support groups and lawyers.

This case has also brought problems with the technical trainee program itself to the fore. Despite her deep anxiety about being pregnant in a foreign land where she was not yet familiar with the language or customs, Linh did not consult with a doctor or anybody else.

Foreign technical intern trainees are covered by a labor law provision banning businesses from dismissing employees or otherwise treating them in a disadvantageous manner because of pregnancy and childbirth.

But in reality, such trainees generally face a harsh time.

In the three or so years through 2020, more than 600 foreign trainees suspended their enrollment in the program due to pregnancy and childbirth, according to the health and labor ministry.

A survey last year by the Immigration Services Agency found that about a quarter of the foreign trainees who responded had been told by the organizations involved that they would have to quit and return home if they got pregnant. Those entities included brokers in their home countries that recruit and send trainees to Japan, nonprofit organizations helping Japanese companies accept such trainees and their employers in Japan.

The presence of foreign nationals should mean accepting them for who they are and realizing that they, just like everybody else, are trying to get through life no matter what it throws at them. This includes falling pregnant and having children in Japan.

After Linh was acquitted, she said she hoped to see Japan become a society where female intern trainees struggling with pregnancy can receive proper counseling and give birth without anxiety. Her wish should lead to effective policy steps to tackle this problem.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 28