Australian grandmother in Japanese prison kept in isolation

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Donna Nelson’s legal team says the WA grandmother worries she will be forgotten while she waits for a trial inside a 10 by 12 foot cell in a Japanese detention centre.

The prominent indigenous community leader has not spoken directly to her family since her arrest at Narita International Airport with around 2 kilograms of methamphetamine hidden in a tampered suitcase.

Donna Nelson is in a Japanese prison on drug charges.

Nelson, 57, spends more than 23 hours a day locked in her cell, is not allowed to speak with other prisoners, can shower only once every three days and is passing time by reading the Bible.

A blanket ban on visitors meant this masthead couldn’t see Nelson on a recent trip to Chiba Prison, about an hour outside Tokyo.

Her lawyers, Australian Embassy staff and a pastor are allowed to visit.

Speaking to WAToday in Tokyo, Rie Nishida, a criminal defence lawyer and founder of Shinjuku International Law Firm said Nelson was finding it difficult to stay positive after 10 months. She still does not have a trial date.

“She is not allowed to speak freely with the other inmates and she’s isolated in a lonely cell. She has to stay by herself in a really limited space all alone,” Nishida said.

“We filed a partial lift of the communication ban so now she can see a pastor and I think it’s helping her a lot.”

Nishida said Nelson was trying exercise, but that was limited to less than 30 minutes per day.

Paralegal Matthew Owens is helping build Nelson’s defence, and is working as a translator.

“Donna wants to say that she is going to be able to prove her innocence, she’s 100 per cent confident of that in herself and she wants everyone in Australia and the world to know that she is innocent,” Owens said.

“Having read through all of the messages, me personally, I think it would be a tragedy if she wasn’t acquitted. I 100 per cent believe she’s innocent. I think anyone who really got a true sense of all of the information that we have and the evidence that we have would think the same but unfortunately the Japanese justice system has an over 99 per cent conviction rate and so we can’t really say anything solid at this time,” he said.

Nelson wants Australians to know that she is innocent.

Nelson’s lawyers will argue she was tricked into taking the suitcase from Laos to Tokyo by a Nigerian man she met on a dating website.

Customs officers discovered the drugs hidden inside an altered suitcase.

According to Nelson’s lawyers, one side of the case was fitted with a false outer lining to create a hidden cavity in which around 2 kilograms of methamphetamine was found.

“The main issue is whether she knows there was drugs contained in the suitcase or not, our logic is that she never knew that,“Nashida said.

“The main evidence from the prosecution is mainly customs officers who said she acted suspicious.”

Nashida said the proper translation of evidence into English was making it more difficult.

“We believe this case has very strong circumstantial evidence. Because she has no criminal record, and also she has no motive to cooperate to do smuggling. She has loving family members and grandkids and has a happy life and she was joking with a family member she was going to see someone and she might get married. All of the circumstantial evidence shows she’s not smuggling drugs,” Nashida said.

Owens, who is fluent in Japanese and English, says foreigners arrested in Japan can find themselves at the mercy of language translators assigned at random.

“Essentially it’s completely random as to the quality of the translator that you get and that could be the translator at customs stage, a different translator for the police, a different translator again at the prosecutor’s office, each of which organise their own translators who are often just members of the community who happen to speak Japanese and English and there’s no said guarantee of how good they are,” he said.

In Japan locals and foreigners can be kept waiting months before being given a trial date.

Tomohiro Kurohara is the head of Global Law Office and works in Tokyo as a criminal defence lawyer with a focus on human rights protection. He’s also working on Nelson’s case.

Through a translator he outlined the limitations of the Japanese justice system.

“It is completely unfair but the way the prosecuting side think of it – that if you admit to the crimes then you will have your trial a lot faster” he said.

“You may be granted bail or early release while you’re waiting for your trial. However as a form of pressure on people who decide to fight their case then the exact opposite happens and you are kept in for a long time and you have far fewer rights.”

Nelson’s formal charges are Violation of the Stimulant Control Act and Violation of the Customs Act.

Her lawyers believe she’s facing up to 20 years in behind bars.

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