Jiji PressTOKYO (Jiji Press) — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday announced his government’s plan not to appeal a recent landmark district court ruling that ordered the state to pay damages to relatives of former leprosy patients.
The government apparently found it necessary to recognize its responsibility for infringing on the human rights of the family members, seriously taking account of their claims that they have suffered discrimination due to the state’s past policy of isolating leprosy patients, sources familiar with the matter said.
“We can’t let the sufferings of the family members who have gone through indescribable experiences last any longer,” Abe told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo, while noting, “It’s true that there are some points we can’t accept in the ruling.”
“The government won’t file an appeal against the ruling although this is an unusual step,” he said.
Abe said that he has instructed ministers concerned, including Health, Labor and Welfare Minister Takumi Nemoto, to take necessary steps based on the policy of not filing an appeal.
At their respective press conferences on Tuesday, Nemoto and Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita showed their intentions to start working soon on specifics based on the instructions.
In the damages lawsuit, 561 relatives of former leprosy patients demanded an apology and compensation of ¥5.5 million per plaintiff from the government.
On June 28, the Kumamoto District Court ordered the government to pay a total of about ¥376 million to the plaintiffs, in the first court ruling in the country to recognize the state’s responsibility for the sufferings of relatives of leprosy patients.
In the suit, the government claimed that the family members were not subject to the isolation policy and that it did not create or encourage prejudice or discrimination against them.
Following the ruling, Abe said last Wednesday: “Leprosy patients and their families suffered massively, with their human rights infringed on. We really must feel responsible, although we need to examine the ruling in detail.”
Meanwhile, a senior government official has said, “It is reasonable for the state to challenge the ruling,” adding, “If compensation payments to family members are approved, that would become a precedent.”
Chikara Hayashi, the 94-year-old head of the plaintiffs, welcomed the government’s plan not to appeal, which came more than 80 years after his father, a leprosy patient, was put into a sanatorium in Kagoshima Prefecture.
“It’s a matter of course. We’ve finally come to this point,” he said. Hayashi, now a resident of the city of Fukuoka, was 12 years old when his father entered the facility.
He said: “The government now faces the new task of rescuing people who have suffered from prejudice. Giving up an appeal is the first step.”
Atsushi Suzuki, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, urged the government to take sufficient measures toward eliminating discrimination and prejudice against family members of leprosy patients that still exist.
In a ruling issued in 2001, the Kumamoto court found the isolation policy unconstitutional and ordered the state to pay compensation to former leprosy patients.
The government of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi did not challenge the ruling, and it became final. The ruling, however, did not grant compensation to relatives of the patients.
In a lawsuit filed by the son of a leprosy sufferer, the Tottori District Court issued a ruling in 2015 that held the government responsible for failing to implement measures to eliminate discrimination while turning down the plaintiff’s demand for compensation.
In 2018, the Hiroshima High Court’s Matsue branch in Shimane Prefecture overturned the district court ruling. The plaintiff appealed against the high court branch ruling, and the case is now with the Supreme Court.
Although leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is not highly infectious, the government kept the isolation policy in place for some 90 years until a related law was abolished in 1996.