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Sendai court ends trial on forced sterilization suits despite gov't wish for more hearings

Lawyer Koji Niisato, who leads the legal team for the plaintiffs, speaks at a rally in Sendai's Aoba Ward on March 20, 2019, after the trial of their lawsuits was concluded at the Sendai District Court. (Mainichi/Issei Takizawa)

SENDAI -- A local court on March 20 concluded a trial on damages suits filed by two Miyagi Prefecture women for sterilization surgery they were forced to undergo under the now-defunct eugenic protection law, dismissing the central government's demand for further hearings.

This is the first case for which the trial has been concluded among a series of lawsuits in which a total of 20 plaintiffs are suing the government at seven district courts over forcible sterilization operations under the law that was in force from 1948 to 1996.

The Sendai District Court is scheduled to determine whether the law was unconstitutional in a ruling scheduled for May 28 -- about one year after the first such suit was filed.

The move comes as the ruling and opposition camps are poised to pass a bill as early as April to extend relief to victims of forcible sterilization operations during the ongoing Diet session.

A legal team representing the two plaintiffs insisted in the oral proceedings on March 20 that both sides thoroughly made their assertions and the points of contention have been clarified.

The central government asked that the court continue the trial. "The oral proceedings shouldn't be concluded before the relief bill is passed into law," said the government.

Presiding Judge Motoyuki Nakashima suspended the trial and discussed the matter with two other judges, and then fixed the date for handing down a ruling on the suit saying, "Sufficient deliberations have been held."

The suit was launched in January 2018 by a woman in her 60s from the northeastern Japan prefecture of Miyagi who has intellectual disabilities. Four months later, a woman in her 70s from the same prefecture, who goes by the alias of "Junko Iizuka," also filed a similar suit. The court subsequently integrated the trials of the two suits.

The plaintiffs complained that their reproductive rights guaranteed by Article 13 of the Constitution were infringed upon because they were forced to undergo sterilization surgeries under the eugenics law.

The key points of contention during six rounds of oral proceedings were whether the 20-year statute of limitations under the Civil Code for demanding compensation has run out and whether the legislative branch neglected its duty to take action to extend relief to victims.

As more than 40 years have passed since the women underwent forcible sterilization surgery, the national government insisted that their right to demand compensation has ended.

The plaintiffs argued that it was extremely difficult to individually complain about damage caused by forcible sterilization under the social circumstances when it was carried out, and held successive health ministers responsible for failing to rectify the problem.

The central government denied that health ministers were responsible for forcible sterilization, citing the 20-year statute of limitations.

The government neither admitted nor denied the unconstitutionality of the law, claiming that it is not a key point of contention in the trial. The government hung tough in its refusal to clarify its position on the unconstitutionality of the law even though the presiding judge urged the defendant to express its view on the matter.

Since March 2018, a suprapartisan parliamentary league and the ruling coalition have drafted a bill to extend relief of those who were forced to undergo sterilization surgery under the eugenic protection law. The legislature is expected to enact the bill as early as April.

The relief legislation will likely come into force before a court ruling -- an unprecedented process.

(Japanese original by Hiroshi Endo, Sendai Bureau)

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