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Nissan's Ghosn crisis

Ghosn case looks to shake up Japan's 'hostage justice'

Detaining suspects until they admit crimes goes against global standards

TOKYO -- International criticism of Japan's so-called "hostage justice" system may have played a role in the release of Carlos Ghosn on bail after the former Nissan Motor chairman spent 108 days in prison following his arrest for financial crimes.

Despite being held for more than three months, the release on March 6 was unusually early in Japan, where suspects are typically held until their trial begins.

Ghosn's 1 billion yen bail ($8.93 million) came with strict conditions -- including video surveillance with limited internet, email and cellphone access -- to ensure he does not destroy evidence or flee the country.

The arrest of Ghosn, who holds French, Brazilian and Lebanese citizenship, has drawn international scrutiny. On March 6, France's Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said the decision to free Ghosn on bail will allow him to "freely and serenely" mount a defense.

Japan's legal system has long been criticized for refusing the release of suspects who deny their allegations, earning the nickname "hostage justice." In addition to being a human rights issue, the tradition of keeping suspects under detention until they admit their crimes is a hotbed for false accusations, critics say.

In one case, Muneo Suzuki, a former Japanese legislator suspected of mediating bribery, was held for 437 days before being granted bail.

"I am hopeful that [Ghosn's] bail decision will help do away with the hostage justice system," said Hiroshi Kadono, a former Tokyo High Court judge.

Moving forward, debate over bail in Japan will revolve around whether restrictions on defendant's activity should be a requirement for release, as in Ghosn's case, experts say. It is likely that more defense lawyers will propose strict conditions to secure bail for their clients.

It is unclear whether the bail granted to Ghosn, who is charged with underreporting his salary and aggravated breach of trust, will serve as a precedent, given that the nature of his case is different from crimes like theft or fraud.

"It deviates from bail conditions in previous cases and lacks consistency," said a Tokyo-based legal source.

Japan's laws regarding interrogation have also come under international criticism. Here, suspects can be questioned repeatedly without having a lawyer present, a practice that is not allowed in many other democracies.

The U.S. Supreme Court recognized the Miranda rule in 1966 requiring suspects be informed of their rights, including to the right to counsel, before the investigation. Many European countries also allow suspects to request meetings with their lawyers, while France mandates counsel to be present during questioning.

"Japan's interrogation system is behind the rest of the world," said a criminal justice lawyer in Tokyo.

The UN Human Rights Committee has advised Japan several times to reform its criminal justice system by allowing bail before trials and for lawyers to be present during questioning. A UN committee against torture called Japan's criminal justice system "medieval" in 2013.

Ghosn's release has made a splash outside Japan as well. The French newspaper Le Monde reported the release was unusual for Japan. The Wall Street Journal said the case "highlighted long detention periods in Japan, where prosecutors have greater leeway to hold and question suspects than their counterparts in many Western countries."

Some Japanese legal professionals, on the other hand, praise the country's system as thorough. Japan is known for its rigorous fact-finding and "precision justice." Prosecutors gather evidence in meticulous detail to prove motive and events surrounding crimes while the courts work to prevent recurrences.

Japan's 99.9% conviction rate has been hailed as the result of these exhaustive investigations and a contributor to the country's safe reputation, but critics say it also has the potential for false convictions.

The country's criminal justice system is still being reformed. In 2001, it moved to reduce its dependence on confessions by making questioning more transparent and introducing plea bargains.

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