Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi formally apologized Friday to leprosy patients who for years suffered institutionalized discrimination and abuse by the state.
But he maintained the court ruling that forced his hand was wrong, and that the government settled the case only on humanitarian grounds.
“The government deeply regrets that its isolation policy greatly restricted the patients’ human rights and caused grave prejudice and discrimination against them in society, and frankly apologizes for it, as well as offering condolences to those who died while feeling mortified,” Koizumi said in a statement.
The statement, which was read by Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda, follows Koizumi’s decision Wednesday not to appeal a landmark court damages ruling against the government.
The Kumamoto district court in southern Japan, ordered Tokyo on May 11 to pay more than 100 leprosy sufferers a total of 1.82 billion yen (US$14.8 million) in compensation for human rights abuses.
The government did not repeal until 1996 its notorious 1953 Leprosy Prevention Law, which resulted in the sterilization of leprosy sufferers and forced abortions of the unborn children of sanatorium inmates.
It also maintained a pre-war isolation policy for leprosy patients dating from 1907.
The Kumamoto ruling marked Japan’s first legal judgment on such cases, and shed light on the plight of leprosy patients who suffered systematic state discrimination long after it was established the disease was not contagious.
“The government was supposed to appeal the ruling to seek a higher court’s judgment on serious legal problems it contains, but I reached the conclusion that early settlement of the case is most important, considering the fact that many other suits have been filed by leprosy patients, and that most of the patients are of an advanced age,” Koizumi said in his statement.
The prime minister also said the government would start work to enact a law to compensate all leprosy patients, create a pension system for them, and take other measures to promote public awareness of the disease.
Top officials of the ruling three-party coalition have agreed to push for legislation to achieve the goals before the current parliamentary session ends in late June.
Meanwhile, the government issued a separate statement saying it could not actually agree with the Kumamoto decision that lawmakers were responsible for their unintended failure to enact laws to protect the rights of leprosy patients because it departed from legal precedent.
The government statement argued that the interpretation would excessively restrict activities of legislators and go against the separation of legislative and judicial powers.
It maintained that the ruling approved compensation for damages that occurred more than 40 years ago despite the civil code’s 20-year statute of limitations.
The court in its ruling said the relevant date in this case was 1996 when the repressive law was finally abolished.
Cabinet Secretary Fukuda said the government statement was aimed at limiting the impact of the Kumamoto ruling on other lawsuits.
“It does not have the binding authority of law. But, as (it comes from) the government, it is a very significant expression of its opinion,” he told a press conference.