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Denial of Fair Public Trial
The Constitution provides for an independent judiciary, and the Government generally respected this provision in practice. The Cabinet appoints judges for 10-year terms, which can be renewed until judges reach the age of 65. Justices of the Supreme Court can serve until the age of 70 but face periodic review through popular referendums.
There are several levels of courts, including high courts, district courts, family courts, and summary courts, with the Supreme Court serving as the final court of appeal. Normally a trial begins at the district court level, and a verdict may be appealed to a higher court, and ultimately, to the Supreme Court.
The Government generally respected in practice the constitutional provisions for the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial tribunal in all criminal cases. Although most criminal trials were completed within a reasonable length of time, cases may take several years to work their way through the trial and appeals process. In July, the Diet passed legislation aimed at reducing the average time required to complete criminal trials and civil trials that include witness examination. Its provisions include hiring substantial numbers of additional court and Justice Ministry personnel, revising bar examinations, establishing new graduate law schools to increase the overall number of legal professionals three-fold by 2010, and requiring that courts and opposing litigants jointly work to improve trial planning by allowing for earlier evidence collection and disclosure. The advisory panel on judicial reform released the official standards for setting up graduate law schools, and, in November, an education ministry panel approved 66 schools' programs to establish the country's first law schools in the spring of 2004. The first common admission exam was administered on August 31. In 2002, the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Court, and the Japan Bar Association agreed to set up a new bar examination system by 2010. On July 16, a law took effect, which makes the Supreme Court responsible for accelerating proceedings in lower courts, imposes a 2-year time limit for courts to bring criminal and civil trials to conclusion, and requires the Government to take the legal and financial measures necessary to accomplish these goals.
In the extraordinary case of the Aum Shinrikyo 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, the leader of the cult, Chizuo Matsumoto, and his follower, Masami Tsuchiya, who is charged with making the sarin, await a ruling on sentencing, which is scheduled for February 2004 (see Section 2.c.). The other accused persons have been tried, and those convicted have been sentenced.
There is no trial by jury. The defendant is informed of the charges upon arrest and is assured a public trial by an independent civilian court with defense counsel and the right of cross-examination. However, in 2001 the Government's Judicial Reform Council recommended that randomly chosen members of the public be allowed to participate in determining rulings and penalties in criminal trials by deliberating the cases alongside professional judges. The Diet enacted implementing legislation in 2001, with the aim of adopting all of the advisory panel's reform proposals by 2004.
The defendant is presumed innocent. The Constitution provides defendants with the right not to be compelled to testify against themselves as well as to free and private access to counsel; however, the Government contended that the right to consult with attorneys is not absolute and can be restricted if such restriction is compatible with the spirit of the Constitution. Access sometimes was abridged in practice; for example, the law allows prosecutors to control access to counsel before indictment, and there were allegations of coerced confessions (see Sections 1.c. and 1.d.). Defendants are protected from the retroactive application of laws and have the right of access to incriminating evidence after a formal indictment has been made. However, the law does not require full disclosure by prosecutors, and material that the prosecution does not use in court may be suppressed. Critics claimed that legal representatives of defendants did not always have access to all needed relevant material in the police record to prepare their defense. A defendant who is dissatisfied with the decision of a trial court of first instance may appeal to a higher court.
No guidelines mandate the acceptable quality of communications between judges, lawyers, and non-Japanese speaking defendants, and no standard licensing or qualification system for certifying court interpreters exists. In 2000, the Supreme Court introduced a training system to help court interpreters understand complicated trial procedures. A trial may proceed even if the accused does not understand what is happening or being said. Foreign detainees frequently claimed that police urged them to sign statements in Japanese that they could not read and that were not translated adequately.
There were no reports of political prisoners.
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