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Society

Ghosn's great escape teaches Japan hard lesson on tracking suspects

Justice Ministry weighs GPS monitors and rethinks lengthy pretrial detentions

Carlos Ghosn was released on bail in April 2019, eight months before fleeing the country.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- A year after former Nissan chief Carlos Ghosn's escape from house arrest in Japan, Tokyo continues to grapple with the question of how to keep defendants from jumping bail, with electronic monitoring among the top proposals.

His December 2019 flight to Lebanon is only the most prominent example of a wider problem of defendants in Japan going missing after release from pretrial detention. Bail was revoked for 127 people in 2018 -- just over triple the 2009 total.

But Ghosn's escape, which grabbed headlines around the world, has been particularly tough for Tokyo to swallow. The Justice Ministry seeks to prevent a recurrence as well as dispel criticism of what he and others call "hostage justice."

The issue was put to the ministry's Legislative Council in February by then-Justice Minister Masako Mori. Discussion within an expert panel established by the committee has centered on a proposal to require defendants to wear GPS trackers.

This is not uncommon overseas. Ankle bracelets with electronic tags are employed in the U.K., with monitoring contracted out to private-sector companies. Courts in France, South Korea and certain Canadian provinces can order defendants to wear trackers as a condition of release.

The idea drew few objections on the expert panel, and members offered many proposals about where and when suspects should be monitored, as it was noted that 24-hour surveillance would present privacy concerns. Options under consideration include having an alarm sound if the suspect enters certain places, such as airports, or leaves a given residential area.

Setting up a system to enable such monitoring would pose a challenge. Courts, ministry staff and prosecutors have so much to do already that "tracking a suspect's movements around the clock would be difficult," a senior ministry official said.

If Japan contracts out the task to the private sector, as is done in the U.K., then strict controls will be needed to keep location data secure. Ensuring that police can be alerted quickly if a tracker detects a problem will be an issue as well.

The panel plans to produce a report on the issue for the ministry in 2021.

Meanwhile, Japan is starting to shift away from lengthy pretrial detentions. The percentage of individuals granted bail between indictment and sentencing roughly doubled to 32.1% in 2018 from 15.6% in 2009.

This trend is thought to stem from changing attitudes among judges, more of whom support the idea of releasing suspects so that they can properly prepare for trial.

But challenges remain. "Though the percentage of individuals who are granted bail has increased, Japan still detains suspects for significantly longer than other countries in white-collar and other crimes," Hosei University law professor Tomoyuki Mizuno said.

"It would be best to take measures that minimize the risk of suspects tampering with evidence, so an even higher percentage of people can be released on bail," he said. "Using GPS as a way to encourage more releases would be a good idea."

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