March 8, 2016 / 3:00 PM / 4 years ago

Death, drugs and detention in Japan's immigration system

TOKYO (Reuters) - In the 13 months before Niculas Fernando died in a Japanese immigration detention centre in 2014, three other men suffered the same fate.

George, son of Niculas Fernando, shows a picture of his father as he poses for pictures after an interview with Reuters at his apartment in Ichikawa, Chiba prefecture, the suburbs of Tokyo, Japan, November 2, 2015. REUTERS/Yuya Shino

•  Anwar Hussin, 57, a Rohingya from Myanmar, died on Oct. 14, 2013, after suffering a stroke while being held at the same detention centre as Fernando.

•  Saeid Ghadimi, a 33-year-old Iranian, choked on food and died on March 29, 2014, at the East Japan Immigration Detention Center in Ibaraki prefecture, a sprawling complex set among rice paddies northeast of Tokyo.

•  Flaubert Lea Wandji, a 43-year-old Cameroonian, died at the same centre the next day, most likely due to acute heart failure.

The names of Ghadimi and Wandji, and many of the details of their deaths, have not been previously reported.

Like Fernando, Wandji died after being moved to an observation cell so his condition could be monitored. But the guards failed to grasp the need to take Wandji to hospital, the watchdog committee that monitors Japan’s detention centres said in a report last March to the national Immigration Bureau, which is part of the Justice Ministry. The report was reviewed by Reuters.

The watchdog report drew attention to what it said was the heavy prescription of drugs to detainees. At the time he died, Ghadimi had been prescribed 15 different drugs, including four painkillers, five sedatives – one a Japanese version of the tranquilizer Xanax – and two kinds of sleeping pills, the report said. At one point during his incarceration, he was on a cocktail of 25 different pills.

“It is not an exaggeration to say he was in a so-called ‘drugged-up state,’” Teruichi Shimomitsu, a doctor and retired member of the watchdog body, wrote in a letter last May to then-Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa.

Naoaki Torisu, a senior Justice Ministry official responsible for overseeing immigration detention centres, said parts of the committee’s report were “unclear.”

“Detainees take pills prescribed according to their medical needs,” he told Reuters. “I cannot grasp the exact intent behind the committee’s statement.”

Two psychiatrists cited in a November 2014 national Immigration Bureau report said the Iranian’s medications did not cause him to choke.

The prescription of sedatives and antidepressants is common in Japan’s detention centres, say doctors and detainees. Some inmates told Reuters they were given sedatives after arguing with guards or other detainees. Others said they became dependent on the drugs as they faced indefinite detention.

Checks are needed to ensure doctors do not prescribe “massive amounts” of sedatives to keep “rebellious” detainees quiet, Shimomitsu wrote in his letter to then-Justice Minister Kamikawa.

The Justice Ministry’s Torisu disputed that sedatives were used to pacify troublesome detainees. “Psychiatrists prescribe them because they are deemed medically necessary,” he said.

Edited by Peter Hirschberg

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