Japan shakes after wasting inmate dies alone in cell

NAGOYA, Japan – First there was a high fever. Then his face and limbs went numb. Soon she could only hold back water, sugar, and pieces of bread as she wasted away in her cell in a Japanese detention center.

In early March, Wishma Rathnayake – a migrant from Sri Lanka who was detained for exceeding the length of her visa – could barely make a fist and struggle to speak, according to government records detailing her care.

Yet week after week, as she begged to be released to a hospital for treatment, her jailers refused. She and her supporters thought they knew why: authorities, even as her health deteriorated, suspected that she was faking her illness to avoid deportation.

On March 6, at the age of 33, Ms. Rathnayake died alone in her cell.

Her case has become a source of outrage for critics of the Japanese immigration system, who say Ms Rathnayake has fallen victim to an opaque and capricious bureaucracy that has almost unchecked power over foreigners who violate her.

The tragedy sparked a national death toll in Japan, a country with a long history of hostility to immigration. He is now grappling with his sometimes inhumane treatment of strangers, especially people of color, and many are calling for change.

They point to a system in which most immigration decisions are made in secret, offering migrants little recourse to the courts. Those who have exceeded their visa term or entered the country illegally can be detained indefinitely, sometimes for years. And migrants who apply for asylum, as Ms Rathnayake once did, are particularly unwelcome.

Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, hosts less than 1% of asylum seekers, including just 47 last year – a point of contention among other countries that have called on Tokyo to do more.

Immigration officials are “police officers, prosecutors, judges and jailers,” said Yoichi Kinoshita, who left the government immigration office due to its lack of clear standards to guide its decisions at times. of life or death. He now leads an advocacy group focused on repairing the system.

On Tuesday, the Japanese government, facing increasing pressure following Ms Rathnayake’s death, made two major concessions.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has dropped an effort to overhaul Japan’s immigration law, with opposition lawmakers saying they will not launch a debate on the changes unless the government releases video footage of Ms. Rathnayake taken to the detention center just before her death.

The government had argued that the revisions would improve the treatment of detainees, in part by ending long detentions, which have drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups for decades. But critics have been particularly critical of changes that would have allowed Japan to forcibly repatriate asylum seekers, potentially returning them to dangerous situations back to their countries of origin.

Also Tuesday, the Minister of Justice, Yoko Kamikawa, agreed to meet the two sisters of Mrs. Rathnayake in order “to express my condolences”. Ms Kamikawa has repeatedly refused to discuss the details of Ms Rathnayake’s death, the cause of which has not yet been officially determined. She said she would withhold any comments until the immigration office has completed an investigation into the case. The office, in a statement, reiterated its remarks.

After the meeting, the sisters said Ms. Kamikawa told them the government would not release the footage. They said they would not go home until they watched the video.

Ms Kamikawa held the meeting because her ministry, which administers the immigration office, has been regularly attacked in the media for her role in Ms Rathnayake’s death and her evasion of the causes. Protesters have gathered in front of Parliament almost daily, and objections from opposition lawmakers have been unusually fierce.

These lawmakers want to overhaul an immigration system in which the results for those caught inside can be grim. At least 24 inmates have died since 1997, according to the Japan Lawyers Network for Refugees. Activists have alleged government negligence in some cases, most recently the death in 2020 of an Indonesian and in 2019 of a Nigerian on hunger strike. Official investigations have not substantiated the charges.

None of these cases inspired public anger over the death of Ms Rathnayake, a hopeful young woman who came to Japan with the dream of teaching English.

In the summer of 2017, she started studying Japanese at a school in the suburbs of Tokyo. On her Facebook page, she shared photos of trips to Buddhist temples and the mountains, where she reveled in the snow.

About six months after starting her program, she started skipping classes, said Yuhi Yokota, deputy principal of the school. Before long, she moved into an apartment with her boyfriend, another Sri Lankan student she met in Japan. The couple then disappeared, a development that school officials reported to immigration authorities, Yokota said.

Hoping to stay in Japan, Ms Rathnayake applied for asylum status, but the government rejected an application to renew her residence permit and she withdrew her application. The officials quickly lost her.

Then, last August, she appeared at a police station in Shizuoka, on the Pacific coast of central Japan, asking for the protection of her boyfriend, who she said had abused her. She said she wanted to go home, but had less than $ 20 in her name.

The authorities were more interested in another problem: her residence permit had expired and she was in Japan illegally. They sent her to a detention center in Nagoya, a few hours southwest of Tokyo, to await her deportation.

Several months later, she received a letter from her ex-boyfriend. He knew she had reported him to the police, he wrote, adding that he would seek revenge if she returned to Sri Lanka.

Ms. Rathnayake decided she would be safer in Japan. With the encouragement of a local non-profit organization, START, she decided to try to stay.

The decision angered officials at the detention center, said Yasunori Matsui, the group’s adviser. They demanded that she change her mind, she told him during one of his frequent visits.

At the end of December, Ms Rathnayake fell ill with a fever and within weeks was having trouble eating, according to the nonprofit.

She tried to pass the time by watching TV, but the commercials for the food made her unbearable hunger.

Ms Rathnayake suffered from extreme anxiety, the doctors found. A nurse suggested fixing the problem by writing a journal with all the things she was grateful for. At the end of January, a doctor prescribed him vitamins and pain relievers. After making her vomit, she resisted taking more.

Care was limited in the detention center medical facility, which looked more like an infirmary than a clinic.

Officials said her problems were caused by “stress,” she wrote in a letter to Akemi Mano, a local activist, adding that “they are not taking me to the hospital.”

Authorities took Ms Rathnayake to a gastroenterologist in early February. The exam was inconclusive, but if she couldn’t keep her meds she would have to be hospitalized, the doctor wrote in a medical report reviewed by The New York Times. The comment conflicts with the official government record of the visit, which indicates that no recommendation for hospitalization was made.

Ms. Rathnayake was returned to the detention center. Soon she couldn’t walk. When she met her START reps, she was deployed in a wheelchair with a bucket on her lap.

She had applied for interim release in January, citing anxiety. Detention centers had already released hundreds of healthy detainees over concerns about the coronavirus, but in mid-February his request was rejected without explanation. Shortly after, she submitted a second for medical reasons. She was so weak that she could barely sign the form, Mr. Matsui said.

Despite the severity of her symptoms, officials waited until March 4 to take Ms. Rathnayake to hospital. A psychiatrist who examined her wrote that her godparents told her that being sick would improve her chances of being released, according to a medical record reviewed by The Times and first reported by TBS, a Japanese broadcaster. START denies the allegation.

The cause of Ms Rathnayake’s illness was unclear, the doctor noted. While it is possible that she was faking, he wrote, there would be no harm in agreeing to her request for medical release, adding that “if you think about the benefits of the patient, it is probably better.

Two days later, Ms. Rathnayake died.

In late April, a group of opposition lawmakers held a video meeting with Ms Rathnayake’s mother and sisters. One after another, they offered their sincere apologies and asked what they could do to help ease the family’s grief.

“I want to know why they let her suffer,” her mother said. “Why didn’t they take her to the hospital as soon as possible?”

For now, the family can only speculate. An interim report into Ms Rathnayake’s death, released by immigration officials last month, is filled with minute details, like blood pressure and oxygen saturation with each exam, the exact time she received it medicine for her headache or chest pain, every bite of food she ate or rejected.

But he omits the most important information: an answer for Mrs Rathnayake’s mother.


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