Japan held innocent Nepali 15 years over death of TEPCO employee

Wrongful conviction puts spotlight on Japanese justice


Nepali man, wrongly jailed 15 years after death of TEPCO worker, released and deported






by Christopher Johnson


For 15 years, Govinda Mainali dwelled in regimented Japanese prisons, wrongfully convicted of murder, and largely ignored by Japanese media and foreigners who knew little about a justice system stacked against suspects.


Now, after his release, Japanese media are swarming him in Nepal, and foreign residents in Japan are calling for justice and equality. 


Mr. Mainali, 45, has said little about his ordeal following the 1997 death of a female employee of TEPCO, which operates the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactors. “I’m sad for having been forced to spend 15 years in prison, despite being innocent,” he told about 100 reporters at Kathmandu airport this month.


His brother Indra told reporters in Nepal that Mr. Mainali, disoriented and meeting his wife and children for the first time in 18 years, will have to learn how to use computers and mobile phones. Besieged by Japanese reporters, Mr. Mainali, who still likes Japanese food, snuck out of a Kathmandu home last week to buy a Sony TV.  Activists and commentators, meanwhile, are demanding Japanese authorities compensate Mr. Mainali, overhaul the justice system, and punish prosecutors and judges who reportedly convict more than 99 percent of suspects in Japan.  


“The Mainali Case is proof once again that there are two systems of justice in Japan: one for Japanese, one for foreigners,” Debito Arudou, a US-born academic who became a Japanese citizen and rights activist, said in an interview. “Once the public prosecutor has a foreigner in his grip, that means indefinite incarceration without habeas corpus or bail.  Even if judged innocent in court, prosecutors usually appeal and foreigners are still jailed.”


The Tokyo High Court ordered a retrial and release of Mr. Mainali on June 7, saying fresh DNA evidence proved that semen and hair at the 1997 crime scene wasn’t his. Though he was released from a Yokohoma prison, immigration officials detained and deported him on a visa overstay charge — a move meant to deter him from seeking compensation, rights activists say. 


Gopal Krishna Siwakoti, a Nepalese human rights activist, called the case the “trial of the century in terms of migrant workers”, and an example of how a “xenophobic attitude was entrenched in Japanese judicial system”. 

Japan’s daily Nikkan Gendai called prosecutors “sore losers.” “Saving face is more important to the prosecution than human rights,” they wrote. 


Even so-called “Japan apologists” have spoken out against “induced confessions” and the harsh imprisonment and costly deportation of more than 100,000 foreigners over the past decade. 


“The fact is that a foreigner falling afoul of the Japanese legal system doesn’t have a hope in hell of getting a fair trial,” leading foreign businessman Terrie Lloyd wrote in his conservative business magazine Japan Inc. “Through seemingly innocent circumstances we could just as easily be caught up in a similar situation. Reading about his case makes you feel like we’re living in an emerging economy in the Middle East rather than a first-world country like Japan.”


At a Tokyo press conference last week, Justice Minister Makoto Taki denied that authorities and guards mistreated Mr. Mainali in jail. He did not say if Japan will order Mr. Mainali to return for a retrial. Japan and Nepal do not have an extradition treaty. 


Mr. Mainali, who lived near the murder scene, was arrested in 1997 for overstaying his student visa by three years in order to work at an Indian restaurant in Tokyo’s Shibuya entertainment district. While in detention, police charged him with murdering Yasuko Watanabe, 39. Japanese media say she was from a prestigious family and Keio University, a well-paid economist with TEPCO by day and prostitute by night. Her body was discovered 11 days after strangulation. Several websites have accused TEPCO of “silencing” her and scapegoating Mr. Mainali. TEPCO has not commented publicly on the case. 


The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan’s largest daily, has criticized police and prosecutors for targeting a foreigner. “Two days after a woman was found dead in an apartment on March 19, 1997, Tomihiko Hirata, then chief of the Metropolitan Police Department’s first investigative division, wrote in his diary, “A Nepalese man who lives in a neighboring building should be found guilty with the circumstantial evidence we have collected.”


The Yomiuri said that investigators became excited when they heard that Mr. Mainali had “grinned” during questioning. “We thought he had unconsciously allowed himself to relax when he learned he wasn’t being arrested on a murder charge,” an investigator said. “We believed we had the killer.”

Charles McJilton, a Tokyo-based Christian missionary from Minnesota who has visited about 50 foreign prisoners in Japan since the 1990s, says Mr. Mainali, like other foreign suspects, didn’t have a lawyer or proper interpreter. “It was him against all the police and prosecutors. She worked for TEPCO, was controversial because she was a prostitute at night, and the police felt they had to get a conviction. They probably believed he would confess to it eventually, but he didn’t.”


Judges, expected to affirm guilt, “put their careers on the line by handing him a not guilty verdict the first time,” he said in a phone interview. “Though he was still detained on his visa overstay charge, Mainali felt relieved, and he thought he was going to be deported back to Nepal.” 


But prosecutors kept Mr. Mainali incarcerated on the visa overstay charge, and later won their appeal in December 2000 on the murder charge. “Within 6 months, based on the same evidence, he was found guilty,” says Mr. McJilton. 


Activists say 99 percent of foreign suspects are held in custody and denied bail, compared with 76 percent of Japanese. “It’s not a system of innocence until proven guilty. If you appear in court, you are supposed to show remorse and take responsibility for the crime,” says Mr. McJilton. “One of the judges said: ‘I looked into his eyes, and I knew that he had done it’.”


Mr. Mainali’s former roommate, Narendra Kumar Khadka, 42, told a Kyodo news reporter in Nepal last week that police coerced him to sign a false statement saying Mr. Mainali murdered the woman to rob her and repay a debt. Mr. Khadka said he was illegally detained for about 20 days at a police station in Tokyo, another 45 days at a Tokyo detention center, and another 20 days by immigration authorities who deported him. He said he was often interrogated for 10 hours a day. “Japan is a big country and has big influence in Nepal. So if I anger Japanese authorities, I could get into trouble even if I live in my own country,” Khadka said, adding that Japanese investigators have visited him “many times” in Nepal, according to Kyodo. 

It’s not clear if Mr. Mainali will seek compensation or legal action against police, prosecutors and judges. The government reportedly paid 80 million yen (about $1 million) to Toshikazu Kasuga, a Japanese man jailed for 17 years on a murder conviction until acquitted in 2010.


Mr. Mainali said he kept journals in jail to expose mistreatment of incarcerated foreigners. As reported earlier this year in Atimes.com, Japan only accepts about 30 refugees per year, while detaining thousands of asylum seekers and expatriate workers in special detention centres, including windowless holding cells under Narita airport. Detainees often have to pay for their own deportation costs, a windfall for airlines who charge exorbitant amounts for one-way flights.