There has been an interesting and surprising development in the lawsuit that veteran student leftist group Zengakuren has brought against officers of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department.
As previously reported, Zengakuren launched the lawsuit in late 2016 after activists were physically harassed and allegedly assaulted by public security bureau police officers when arriving at a rally in Tokyo in September 2016. The suit seeks ¥12 million in damages from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which oversees the TMD, and 15 individual officers.
On 23 February, judges from Tokyo District Court entered the headquarters of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department in Chiyoda ward, central Tokyo, in order to secure as evidence in the case in the form of photographs and videos shot by police on the day of the incident. While the lawsuit had so far generated little press attention, this unusual news was picked up by major Japanese media outlets.
Image via Reuters
Zengakuren is the student wing of the far-left Marxist group commonly known as Chūkaku-ha (Central Core Faction). Needless to say, Zengakuren has already made much of its own evidence public, strongly denouncing the brutality suffered by its activists at the hands of the police through its own videos, publications and online platforms. It has also openly named the officers it says are responsible.
Though requested to provide the videos and photos its officers took as evidence for the suit, the police refused on the ostensible grounds that it might infringe of the privacy of third parties included in the footage as well as expose their investigation techniques. The plaintiffs then formally requested the court seize the evidence in September last year. And so it came to pass that the judges entered the police HQ to demand the evidence in case it is conveniently “lost” or altered. Zengakuren’s legal team was also able to join the “raid” on the headquarters but said that police once again refused to supply the materials to judges. A police spokesperson then declined to comment in response to press enquiries.
The rather exceptional nature of this development has finally raised considerable awareness of the lawsuit and the way police officers treat young left-wing activists, in stark contrast to their tolerance of a liberal student group like SEALDs, which always strove to maintain good relations with police and authorities when organising demonstrations. This meant it enjoyed much mainstream media attention but was also criticised by more radical groups.
Faced with the full might of the nation’s apparatus that is generally determined to curb their activities, New Left groups frequently pursue costly lawsuits against the state and police as a means of protest — using the legal system, which is not ordinarily tilted in their favour, to achieve small, symbolic victories — or as a means of attaining practical improvements for a cause, particularly conditions for imprisoned activists. While Zengakuren’s suit falls largely into the first category, there is a real chance that the group might win and score an embarrassing point against the TMD. And the actions of the Tokyo District Court judges this week also proves that even the police are answerable to the courts. The fifth oral pleadings session in Zengakuren’s lawsuit will take place at Tokyo District Court on 22 March.
Incidentally, the support group for Chūkaku-ha activist Fumiaki Hoshino, who is possibly one of the longest-serving political prisoner in the world, have also filed similar civil suits in order to achieve better conditions for Hoshino, whose letters have been punitively censored and cell is unheated, and also to obtain evidence that, supporters claim, may be significant in proving Hoshino’s innocence. The police has continued to withhold certain items of evidence and then apparently claimed footage was lost.