British 'drug mule' faces 10 years' jail after acquittal overturned in Japan

TOKYO (AFP) - A British man faces 10 years' jail in Japan after his acquittal for smuggling drugs from Africa was overturned, in a case that casts a spotlight on the country's recently reformed legal system.

Japan's Supreme Court rejected claims by 56-year-old Robert Geoffrey Sawyer that he did not know he had 2.5 kilos of illegal stimulants in his luggage when he arrived at Narita Airport from Benin in 2010.

Sawyer's initial trial was conducted under the lay judge system, a relatively new model in Japan where a panel made up of members of the public play the role of inquisitorial judges under the guidance of three professionals.

These lay judges originally found Sawyer not guilty, saying they could not be sure he knew the package he was carrying contained drugs, but prosecutors appealed to the high court, where the acquittal was overturned.

The supreme court issued its ruling on Monday, upholding the high court's decision, with judges saying Sawyer was a knowing drug mule and had almost certainly received directions from his handlers.

"A smuggling organisation usually gives a carrier instructions for how to return the luggage, regardless of whether or not it tells the person" that its contents were contraband, said the ruling posted on the supreme court's website.

"The defendant had no company for the trip and no reservations for accommodation as of his arrival in Japan. He also says he had no plans to meet anyone and no itinerary while in Japan," it said.

"It would not be easy for a smuggling organisation to collect stimulant drugs from a person displaying such behaviour," the court said, adding it agreed with the high court that Sawyer had been given instructions.

Sawyer, identified by Jiji Press news agency reports as a geologist, was given a 10-year sentence and fined five million yen (S$62,950).

The court papers did not say which stimulant was involved in the case.

Until the 2009 introduction of the lay judge system for certain serious offences, crimes in Japan were tried solely by a panel of professionals. There is no provision for trial by jury.

Previous lay judge panels, which are empowered to decide verdict and sentence, have handed down death penalties, including in 2010 to a defendant who was a minor under local law.

The Japanese legal system is criticised for a heavy reliance on confessions, which contribute to a conviction rate of around 99 per cent, a level campaigners say is artificially high in a system weighted in favour of prosecutors.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations, a group representing lawyers, is campaigning to have police interrogations recorded, something that presently does not happen.

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