by Timothy Elder
A civil suit attracting international attention for its importance in the fight for religious human rights in Japan has entered the appellate phase after a lower court ruling that activists found encouraging.
The suit was brought by Toru Goto, a Unification Church member in Japan, against deprogrammers and members of his own family for holding him against his will for more than 12 years in an attempt to coerce him into renouncing his faith. The first hearing before the Tokyo High Court was held on June 5, according to a Japanese-language blog published by his supporters.
An earlier ruling by the Tokyo District Court found that the faith-breaking efforts against Mr. Goto had overstepped "the bounds of what is socially appropriate" and awarded him damages of some 4.8 million yen ($48,000). The amount included the cost of a seven-week stay in a Tokyo hospital, where he was treated for malnutrition and general muscle weakness immediately following his release from captivity.
Human rights activists greeted the lower court ruling with expressions of hope that it would represent an important precedent in the Japanese justice system. "I am so very happy for him and all the victims of this horrible practice against human rights," said Kathryn Cameron Porter, president of the Washington-DC Leadership Council for Human Rights.
Mr. Goto’s case has received the attention of numerous international agencies, including the UN Human Rights Council, the US State Department and the UC Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In appealing the ruling, Mr. Goto stressed that the lower court had erred in finding that he was not actually abducted prior to his confinement and that the initial period of his confinement was not against his will. He also asked the higher court for a larger damage award. Among the reasons cited for the appeal is the fact that Japan must abide by international treaties guarantee religious freedom, as well as its own constitution. The defendants, meanwhile, have asked the higher court to overturn the lower court ruling that their actions violated the law.
It is not known how long the higher court will take to reach a decision on the case. The next hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 21.
Since the ruling, the Japan Unification Church has seen two additional cases where it suspects its members have been abducted for the purpose of coercive faith conversion, a spokesman for the Church said.
Excerpt from Mr. Goto’s "Reasons for Appeal"
[The following is a translated excerpt from a legal brief titled "Reasons for Appeal" that was filed by Mr. Toru Goto in Tokyo High Court. It is taken from a copy of the brief published on a Japanese-language blog managed by his supporters (antihogosettoku.blog111.fc2.com). In the opening paragraph, names of certain individuals are omitted in keeping with the way the document was published on the blog. "Plaintiff’ refers to Mr. Goto and "original ruling" refers to the ruling handed down by Tokyo District Court on Jan. 28, 2014. The translation from Japanese to English and this note are by Timothy Elder.]
Findings and judgments can be found in many parts of the original ruling that deviate from the conventional legal interpretations of joint tort, justify the dietary restrictions by Defendant xx (the younger sister of Mr. Goto), give excessive attention to the familial relationships between Plaintiff and Defendant yy (the older brother of Mr. Goto) and others, or can only be seen as results of the court being affected by prejudices created by certain elements of the mass media. It cannot be allowed, however, particularly when issues of human rights are involved, that findings of fact would be altered or legal interpretations twisted because of such considerations. Particularly with regard to media prejudice, media in the Republic of Korea that previously persecuted the Unification Church now endeavor to provide fair coverage and have gone as far as to report how the Unification Movement has contributed to peace in Asia and the world. Media trends change with time; the court should set its sights on the universal value of human rights and protect these rights.
Since the court is an organ of the State, it bears a responsibility to observe treaties (Article 98, paragraph 2, Constitution of Japan), and it goes without saying that it is bound by multilateral treaties entered into by our country, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenants on Human Rights. Particularly among the International Covenants on Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the right to freedom of religion (Article 18), the right to liberty and security of person (Article 9), the freedom to choose a person’s place of residence (Article 12), the freedom from torture or to cruel treatment or punishment (Article 7), and the prohibition of discrimination (Article 26). International standards allow no consideration for any familial relationship(s) that may exist between the human rights violator(s) and victim(s) or for any discrimination on the basis of religion. Thus, it cannot be allowed that the court would make findings and judgments that overlook or disregard violations of human rights because of consideration given to familial relationships. On this point, as previously stated above, findings of fact and the interpretation and application of the law by the original ruling are grossly deficient in their attention to human rights. As such the ruling can be said to be in violation of these international laws.
Human rights activists in other countries have already pointed out that the response by the government in cases involving the abduction, confinement and coerced exit of Unification Church members has been in violation of the above provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Similar criticism concerning incidents involving the abduction, confinement and coerced exit of Unification Church members has been directed toward our country’s judiciary. A report containing such criticism (currently being translated into Japanese) was submitted last year to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and it has been decided that the committee will ask the government of Japan questions regarding the issues of abduction, confinement and coerced exiting during July this year.
If the original ruling is upheld, there can be no doubt that our country will continue to be denounced in international society. It must not happen that our country’s international credibility would be undermined by a court ruling that judges human rights violations to be acceptable. Thus, changes to the original ruling are inevitable from this point as well.