Accused Japanese politician's lawyer goes on the offensive in meth trial

Two phone calls at the end of a trip to Guangzhou imply behaviour different to that of someone who knows he's running drugs, defence lawyer argues

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 August, 2014, 1:35pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 August, 2014, 1:35pm

Two phone calls between a 70-year-old Japanese politician accused of carrying illegal drugs and a business associate who handed him the suitcase in which the drugs were found were part of the evidence presented by the politician’s lawyer on Wednesday in Guangzhou.

Takuma Sakuragi is on trial in Guangzhou Intermediate People’s Court, accused of carrying a suitcase that contained more than 3kg of methamphetamines. The defence strategy of his lawyer, Chen Weixiong, is that Sakuragi was an unwitting drug courier for a Nigerian contact, Gemadi Hassan.

Testimony given on Wednesday established that Sakuragi had called Aly Yattabare, 35, of Mali – an associate of Hassan – twice before boarding a flight at Guangzhou’s airport on his way back to Japan. Chen argued that the calls reflected a Japanese custom reflecting gratitude for a good time had during his visit to Guangzhou. Chen argued that if his client had known there were illegal drugs inside the suitcase, they would have refrained from further contact after the drug exchange.

Sakuragi had agreed to carry the suitcase for Hassan to be passed to Hassan’s wife in Japan, which he was told contained female platform shoes. After Yattabare handed the suitcase to Sakuragi in the hotel, Sakuragi told the court on Wednesday that he had briefly checked the luggage and found nothing suspicious. He reiterated he did not know what was hidden inside.

Two days later at the airport, 28 bags of methamphetamine, weighing 3,289 grams were found hidden inside the retractable handle of the suitcase and within the soles of the shoes.

Another argument Chen presented on Wednesday was that the meth had been hidden in such a professional manner that the signs of modification were undetected by the human eye and weren’t found until the bag was run through x-ray scanners.

Sakuragi’s wife was also ready to take the witness stand on Wednesday to testify to her husband’s character. Chen said before the session that she would describe him as “a Christian as well as the fact that even though he’s an experienced politician, Sakuragi is a lousy businessman”.

Another key piece of evidence will be an eight-year-old laptop computer owned by Sakuragi, which would provide insight of his lack of involvement in, or knowledge of, drugs during his years of correspondence with Hassan, Chen told reporters outside the courthouse on Wednesday morning.

Chen said the lack of Sakuragi’s knowledge that drugs were in the luggage he helped Hassan to carry to Japan would play into the politician’s favour. He has promised he will appeal if Sakuragi is found guilty.

After years of corresponding with Hassan, Sakuragi agreed to go to Guangzhou from Nagoya, Japan, on October 29 – a trip arranged by Hassan for him to sign “certain documents” in Guangzhou to recoup US$701,000 that he lost from investments in Nigeria since 1992. Sakuragi testified in court on Tuesday that the documents he signed seemed trustworthy as they bore his name in print and appeared to be issued by the Nigerian Supreme Court.

Sakuragi is a member of the Inazawa municipal assembly in Aichi prefecture in southern Japan. Apart from being a city councillor with 19 years of political experience, Sakuragi had his own trading business, which occasionally required him to go to Nigeria.

Yattabare and another African, Mohamed Soumah, 39, from Guinea, were also arrested and are on trial on drug transport charges. Prosecutors said Soumah’s fingerprints were found on bags of the meth, but he said he couldn’t understand why. In the case against Yattabare, part of the prosecution evidence involved photos of his apartment, but he said the apartment in the photos does not belong to him.

Chen said testimony in the case would continue on Thursday and also possibly on Friday. Once testimony is completed, a verdict could come anytime up to seven months later, his lawyer said.

“We are full of confidence, but we can’t be optimistic. We know that chances of an acquittal are below 1 per cent,” Chen said. “If the court deems him guilty, the minimum sentence is life imprisonment.”