Death in custody and Japan’s botched immigration bill

Campaigners alleged that Wishma Sandamali was given inadequate medical care. Photo: Wishma Rathnayake/Facebook

A person taken into custody is supposed to be protected by the state, at least until given bail by the court or charges for which the detention order was given fail to stand. If state protection is considered to be a guarantee against disappearing of a person suspected to have been involved in violation of law, state then also have the responsibility of ensuring safety of that person. This responsibility is sacred to the extent that any violation might raise questions about the health of the state itself. We know what custody in Chile’s Pinochet regime or that of our short-lived serpentine kingdom of Khondoker Mushtaque Ahmed meant. We obviously do not expect humane treatment from the authorities under such regimes, where coming out of custody alive would mean something a miracle. Contrary to that, for countries that claim to be at the forefront of democracy and human rights, death in custody is anathema. More because it can taint the image of the country very badly.

Pinochets are long dead; so are Idi Amins and Khondokers; so are their disciples and admirers. But the practice they implemented refuse to die. Moreover, new dictators pop up here and there every now and then as if to proclaim that the life of people living under their supervision is not that precious as we have been taught. And we take a back seat as we try to appease these new bosses. So, the practice goes on.

It is not only in the remote backyards of global power politics that death in custody is still thriving. Sometimes even in the advanced world too, people are dying in places where they are supposed to be protected. A latest such incident in Japan is tainting country’s image as a champion of democracy and human rights in Asian continent.

33-year-old Wisma Sandamali came to Japan back in 2017 from her home country Sri Lanka with the dream of escaping the trap of poverty. This is a common dream that most of those getting admission to Japan’s hundreds of language schools nurture deep in their heart. The dream also allows brokers and school management to skim the poor and destitute in countries where selling dream is increasingly becoming a big business. Sandamali, most likely, fell into the same trap.

Enrolment in language schools allows students to work for certain hours a week and majority finance their living and tuition expenses from what they earn from such part-time works.  And they also continue nurturing the dream that after completing the language course they might end up in a regular job or pursue higher education in Japan. When neither of the two materializes, many tend to overstay their visa or apply for refugee status.

Sandamali realized her first dream of studying in Japan. Higher education in Japan is an expensive matter, unless one gets scholarship or receives financial support from other sources. Sandamali had none, and ran out of money to pay for her tuition. Only option left for her in such a tight situation was to overstay her student visa and continue doing odd jobs. She was doing exactly that until she was taken into custody by Japan’s immigration authorities in August 2020 for overstaying her visa and living in the country illegally.

Sandamali was placed at a detention facility operated by the Nagoya Regional Immigration Services Bureau and was waiting for the court verdict to come. There, at the detention centre, she fell ill sometime in mid-January. She was suffering from nausea, lost appetite and was fast losing weight. She lost 20 kilograms within a short period and had difficulty walking. She eventually submitted her application for provisional release, which was turned down and she died on March 6.

Sandamali’s death in custody has once again raised the issue of treatment of foreigners in detention facilities run by Japan’s immigration authorities. Her family is demanding the release of video footage to know exactly what really happened at Nagoya detention centre and why Sandamali was not given proper medical treatment despite showing symptoms of serious illness. Her two younger sisters are now visiting Japan with the hope of getting to know the details of Sandamali’s final days.

Meanwhile, after the news of her suffering and death at the detention centre was publicized, opposition parties at the Japanese Diet also demanded that the government release the video, at least for the sake of transparency, and threatened to derail a move by the ruling coalition to pass a controversial immigration bill that would revise rules for the expulsion of foreign nationals found guilty of violating the immigration law. The bill also proposed further tightening of existing loopholes in the deportation process for visa overstayers. Facing the strong opposition, the ruling coalition eventually decided to forgo holding a vote on the bill. Sandamali’s death in custody at least could prevent the passage of a bill that might have made life of visa overstayers in Japan much more difficult.

Sandamali was not the only person to die at the Japanese immigration custody. Japan’s leading national daily Asahi Shimbun in a recent report revealed that at least 21 people have died in immigration detention in Japan since 1997. The figure includes five who committed suicides while remaining under custody. The appealing treatment of detainees is at least partly to be blamed for most of those deaths. No wonder Asahi report concluded that in Japan there must have been a human rights void that has been remaining untouched and needs to be addressed urgently.

(Tokyo, June 2, 2021)

  • Khondoker Mushtaque Ahmed
  • State Protection
  • Death in custody and Japan’s bodged immigration bill

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