Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Rapid-deportation policy draws flak

Asahi Shimbun

When two Kurdish teenagers in Saitama Prefecture were turned down for refugee status in late January, they hoped to take their cases to court--a right guaranteed by the Constitution.

Instead, that same day, they were given two plane tickets, taken to the airport and put onto a flight to Turkey. Officials threatened to tie them up if they resisted.

The case is the second confirmed instance of the controversial new rapid-deportation policy of the Justice Ministry's Immigration Bureau.

Under the new approach, some asylum seekers are deported immediately following the rejection of their refugee applications, giving them no time to appeal in court.

Legal experts say this violates foreigners' constitutional right to trial.

The Kurdish teenagers came to Japan in 2002 and 2004, respectively. They applied for refugee status in 2004, arguing they could be persecuted in Turkey because of their Kurdish ethnicity.

In September 2005, the Justice Ministry turned down their applications and detained them at an immigration facility in Ibaraki Prefecture. They then filed a legal appeal of the decision with the ministry.

Then in late January they were told their appeal had been rejected, too.

Surprisingly, ministry officials had their plane tickets in hand, and shipped the pair back to Turkey that same day.

Officials threatened to tie up the teenagers in blankets if they resisted, according to their lawyer, Takeshi Ohashi.

"The ministry apparently withheld notifying (the pair) that their appeals had been rejected until it had completed legal steps and arranged the flight to Turkey, in an attempt to block them from filing lawsuits that could take a couple of years," Ohashi said.

"The move obviously infringed on their constitutional right to receive a trial here," Ohashi said.

He fears rapid deportation will become the norm, and says his clients will file for damages from the government.

The ministry has recently been cracking down on visaless foreigners, in accordance with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's 2003 campaign pledge to halve their number from 250,000 within five years.

A similar case occurred in January 2005, when eight Bangladeshi men were deported the day their ministry applications were rejected.

The eight, now in their late 30s and 40s, came to Japan in toward the end of the 1980s.

After working in Tokyo for more than a decade without valid visas, they finally decided in 2004 to apply for special permission from the justice minister to stay in Japan, a last resort for foreigners who have overstayed their visas.

In the early morning of Jan. 21, 2005, they were told at Tokyo's immigration detention facility that their applications had been rejected.

Within the hour, they were handcuffed, packed into two buses, driven to Narita Airport and put on a flight to Bangladesh, their lawyers said.

Six of them plan to file damages suits with the Tokyo District Court this month, asking for 3 million yen each for violation of their right to trial, and unnecessary physical restraint during the deportation process.

The six had wanted to file administrative litigation before their deportation, their lawyers say, but had no time because of what they call the "cruel" and "sneaky" move.

In 2005, a revision to the Administrative Litigation Law extended the statute of limitations for filing that kind of suit from three to six months from the time of the original decision.

The revision was made to "properly secure the opportunities for Japanese people to restore their rights or interests" should those be damaged by government actions.

But Immigration Bureau officials apparently believe that those rights do not apply to foreign nationals.

"(We) cannot allow foreigners who have overstayed their visas to remain in Japan for such a long period, even if they plan to file litigation," said a senior official of the bureau's enforcement division.

"We do not believe we violated foreigners' rights to file lawsuits," the official added. "They could have prepared for filing lawsuits before they were notified of the ministry's rejection of their application, or consulted their lawyers within the day."

But their lawyers say some clients did indeed ask to talk to their lawyers, but were refused.

They also argue that preparing for litigation beforehand is impossible because the time and result of the decision are unpredictable.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Man loses racial discrimination suit against shop

The Japan Times

OSAKA -- In a case that human rights lawyers and activists worry could condone racial discrimination against foreigners by Japanese businesses, the Osaka District Court rejected a lawsuit Monday that was filed by a black American man who was denied entry to a store apparently due to his color.

Steve McGowan, 41, a resident of Kyoto Prefecture, filed the 1.5 million yen suit after he was denied entry in September 2004 to a store in Osaka Prefecture that sells eyeglasses. He claimed the owner shouted at him to leave and told him he hated black people.

But presiding Judge Yoshifumi Saga ruled that, while it was inappropriate for McGowan to have been asked to leave, there was no evidence the store owner had made discriminating remarks against blacks and said it was questionable whether McGowan had understood what the owner had said.

The court noted that the plaintiff claimed he was told to get out and not to touch the door or show window, but added that neither the plaintiff nor his friend were in the shop at the time, so there was no reason they would have been told to "get out."

"There are doubts about the plaintiff's Japanese ability. . . . and the defendant himself has said he recognizes he has limited freedom in Japanese," the court said. "Therefore, testimony from the plaintiff about what the defendant said can't be trusted."

In a news conference immediately following the ruling, a visibly shocked McGowan warned that a dangerous precedent was being set.

"Today I felt as if I was not in Japan, but in the Alabama of the 1950s. I've been made to feel less than human, like an animal," said McGowan, choking back tears. "This case was not just about me. With this ruling, the judge has given store owners the right to discriminate based on color."

Masao Niwa, a human rights attorney and lead lawyer for McGowan's legal team, expressed disbelief that the court failed to address the most basic issue of all.

"Nowhere does the ruling attempt to answer the question of why he was refused," Niwa said. "This decision is extremely unfair."

That question was also on the minds of rights activists who warned the ruling was tantamount to condoning "commercial apartheid" against foreigners.

"The judge missed the point," Sapporo-based activist Debito Arudou said after the ruling. "The issue is not, 'Did Steve understand properly why he was being refused?' The issue is, 'Why did the shop refuse Steve entry?' "

"Now public-space shops can act like private clubs, refusing anyone they don't like, especially foreigners," Arudou said. "Shops can just claim, 'There was a misunderstanding -- because of his Japanese abilities.' "

McGowan said he will decide whether to appeal in a few days.