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Editorial: Further probes needed over leprosy patients' trials

Serious questions have been raised over the Supreme Court's report that stops short of deeming whether the past practice of trying leprosy patients outside of standard courtrooms without properly examining the need to do so was unconstitutional. The focal point is whether the Supreme Court, as the "guardian of the Constitution," took unconstitutional judiciary proceedings. As such, the top court deserves criticism that it evaded making judgment on this point.

In the report issued on April 25, the Supreme Court concluded that the practice, which is strongly suspected of being discriminatory, was unlawful, and said, "We deeply regret and apologize for promoting prejudice and discrimination against patients and hurting their dignity."

However, serious questions remain about the Supreme Court's attitude toward verification. When it began looking into the case last year, the top court set up a third-party panel to listen to opinions from experts. The panel also simultaneously issued its report.

In its report, the panel clearly pointed out that the trying of leprosy patients outside of standard courtrooms constituted a violation of equality guaranteed by the Constitution. Moreover, the panel of experts stated that suspicions cannot be cleared that separately trying leprosy patients constituted a violation of the constitutional provision that everybody must be tried in an open court.

In response, the top court concluded that trying patients at separate courtrooms was constitutional on the grounds that a notice of such a trial was put up at the gate to the facility when the trial was held. However, such an assertion is unacceptable in light of social norms, considering that special trials of leprosy patients were held at sanatoriums, prisons and other facilities that were segregated from society.

The Supreme Court also failed to express its clear view on whether the practice ran counter to equality guaranteed by the Constitution.

While commenting that there are suspicions that the practice violated equality guaranteed by the Constitution, Yukihiko Imasaki, secretary-general of the top court, told a news conference, "The specific details of these trials remain unclear, so we can't conclude that the practice was unconstitutional." His explanation is insufficient and not consistent with the top court report.

The report suggests that the Supreme Court may have attempted to trivialize the matter. One cannot help but wonder whether such a report could satisfy former patients who were subjected to harsh discrimination.

The relief of leprosy patients began after the Kumamoto District Court ruled that there was no need for segregation of patients after 1960 in a lawsuit filed by residents of sanatoriums. The executive and legislative branches of the government apologized for the longstanding segregation policy.

The judicial branch had failed to address the issue. However, the top court finally began examining courts' practices of trying patients outside of standard courtrooms after those who were demanding the retrial of a patient, who was sentenced to death for murder and later executed despite his not-guilty plea, urged that the top court scrutinize the practice.

In response, former leprosy patients criticized the Supreme Court's report saying that they cannot recognize that the judicial branch apologized for the matter unless the top court admits that the practice was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court should ask itself for what purpose it issued the report.

The panel of experts has pointed to the need for a further investigation and human rights education of personnel. There is a possibility that requests will be filed with courts for retrials of former leprosy patients convicted in trials outside normal courtrooms. The Supreme Court should be aware that its report has not drawn the curtain on its investigation into courts' handling of leprosy patients.

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