Time to pay for crimes against humanity

Martin Day says that it is about time that Japan was jolted out of its complacency about the torture of PoWs during WWII. Martin Day is a senior partner at Leigh Day & Co.

'Tell us about the beatings and torture!' said Mr Nagano.

Chairman of the Japanese Labour Camps Survivors Association, Arthur Titherington, tried to answer but the words would not come. He tried again but, with tears rolling down his cheeks, he knew he had lost control.

The windowless room in the Soga Law Offices was deathly quiet. The six Japanese lawyers looked away, unable to watch.

Arthur stood up and walked around the room for a minute or two before sitting down and telling us about what had happened to him during the terrible war years when he had been a prisoner of the Japanese, working as a slave labourer down the Kinkoseki Copper Mine in Formosa (now Taiwan).

His story of ritual beatings with a three-foot long hammer, of torture, of starvation, of the demand to work day in, day out, week in, week out, down a mine shaft that would make a British mine look like a holiday camp, was very familiar to me as his lawyer, but even I found his words 'only 90 out of the 523 who started at the mine were alive at the end of the war' totally chilling.

This account took place at a meeting shortly after we arrived in Tokyo last month. It was the build-up to giving evidence before the three judges of the Tokyo District Court in support of the claims by some 25,000 PoWs and civilian internees from the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand for compensation to the tune of £14,000 each from the Japanese Government.

On the day before that meeting, still jet-lagged from our flight, we were welcomed to Tokyo by the British ambassador, Sir David Wright. Our visit took place only a month after Tony Blair had been for meetings with his Japanese counterpart. Subsequent to these meetings Mr Hashimoto issued some sort of an apology followed by the remarkable placing of an article, again making an apology, in The Sun newspaper.

Both Arthur and the chairman of the UK civilian internee group, Keith Martin who was also travelling with us were keen to establish the exact wording of the apology.

The ambassador, clearly aware he was treading on thin ice, was cautious in his remarks. He told us there was no doubt in his mind that the apology had been clear and unequivocal, but when pressed for the exact Japanese wording used by the Prime Minister, he said there was no official record of the conversation.

This sounded like hogwash. The tenor of the meeting suggested that Tony Blair had wanted to extract a development on the PoW issue and the Japanese Prime Minister, keen to develop relations with the new kid on the world block, was prepared to oblige.

We also pressed Sir David for details as to what had happened in relation to the compensation issue. He told us that the Japanese Prime Minister was adamant that there would be no movement there.

In subsequent conversations with the Tokyo-based British media, we found that Richard Lloyd Parry, an Independent reporter, had questioned Alasdair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, at the press conference after the Prime Minister's meeting.

He put it to Campbell that the apology was no different to that given by Mr Muruyama, the Prime Minister in 1995, and further, at that time, Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary had stated that Labour would not be satisfied with such an apology unless it was accompanied with compensation.

Campbell dismissed the reporter's cynicism, shooting him down with a sharp jibe.

It would be safe to assume that Keith and Arthur are not overly impressed by Mr Blair's efforts on their behalf. They feel they deserve a full apology, given alongside a significant sum in compensation.

On the day of the hearing Arthur looked relatively calm but I would admit to a real feeling of nerves as I worried about whether his volcanic temper would erupt in front of the Japanese judiciary.

Last June, Professor Kalshoven, the leading international law expert from the Netherlands, had given evidence on our behalf.

At the nub of our claim for compensation is the argument that the Japanese contravened the terms of the 1907 Hague Convention governing the treatment of PoWs and internees.

The Japanese government has two responses. The first is that the 1907 convention was an inter-state agreement and that individuals cannot, therefore, use it to sue.

The second is the 1951/52 San Francisco Peace Treaty between states, whereby it was agreed that further claims against Japan would be dropped on the basis that frozen Japanese assets were payed out to victims, resolved compensation issues.

Kaalshoven, supported by written reports by Professors Greenwood from the UK and David from Belgium, gave evidence to the court saying the government was wrong and that international law did allow individuals to sue and that the £76.50 and £49 received by the PoWs and internees respectively, without their agreement, did not extinguish this right.

In response the government only produced the opinion of a Tokyo University academic, who was not even expert in international law.

We felt the legal argument had been won. Arthur was taking the court through what had happened to him and his comrades to win the moral case.

In giving his evidence Arthur's eyes welled up on numerous occasions and I waited for him to crack, although he did not.

If he had let his emotions go, it may have been the only way to penetrate the stony countenances of the three judges. They showed no emotion while the evidence was given, yet it was these people we were hoping would give a judgment against the Japanese government.

As we faced the massed ranks of the media after the hearing I could not help thinking that Japan needed to be jolted out of its complacency toward the victims of the second World War.

There are now some 30 claims in their courts by various victims' groups including the so-called 'comfort women', as well as various groups of PoWs, internees and others who suffered at the hands of the Japanese from China to the Philippines and yet the Japanese have refused to pay a penny. This is in comparison to the £80bn paid out by the German government to its victims.