A 70-year-old Japanese politician stood trial yesterday in Guangzhou on drug charges punishable by death, with his defence lawyers arguing he did not know he was carrying more than 3kg of narcotics in his bag.
Takuma Sakuragi pleaded not guilty in the Guangzhou City Intermediate People's Court to charges of transporting illegal drugs.
Sakuragi is a member of the Inazawa municipal assembly in Aichi prefecture in southern Japan and has travelled to Nigeria in the past on private business.
The indictment alleged that Sakuragi flew from Nagoya to Guangzhou on October 29 last year, checking into a hotel in Sanyuanli, Baiyun district, with the help of a Nigerian national identified as Gemadi Hassan.
Sakuragi testified that he went to Guangzhou after months of corresponding by e-mail with Hassan, who promised to help Sakuragi recoup US$701,000 in investment losses in Nigerian trades he had amassed since 1992 if Sakuragi went to the southern city and signed some documents.
Sakuragi said he signed the paperwork because it appeared to have been issued by the Supreme Court of Nigeria.
Acting on the instructions of Hassan, another man, Aly Yattabare, 35, from Mali, handed Sakuragi a suitcase containing women's platform shoes, which Sakuragi was supposed to take to Japan and pass on to a third party, the indictment said.
Sakuragi was scheduled to fly to Japan via Shanghai on October 31 but was stopped by airport security in Guangzhou. Officers found drugs inside the soles of the shoes and inside the suitcase's retractable handle. There were 28 bags of methamphetamine in all, weighing 3,289 grams.
Yattabare and another African - Mohamed Soumah, 39, from Guinea - were arrested in connection with the case and were standing trial with Sakuragi, according to the court.
Outside the court, Sakuragi's lawyer, Chen Weixiong, said: "[We are] attempting the impossible … The biggest challenge now is the fact that he did carry 3,200 grams of [drugs] in his bag."
During the afternoon court session, prosecutors said Sakuragi was aware the suitcase held narcotics and questioned him on why he thought signing a document in a small hotel could enable him to recover his money.
In response, Sakuragi denied knowledge of the drugs. He also said he was not familiar with the city or the hotel and maintained that Hassan made the hotel booking.
The two other Africans being charged with illegal transportation of narcotics also denied the charges against them.
Most reporters - including a big contingent from Japan - were barred from the hearing, but those from a number of state-run or pro-government outlets, such as Singapore-based Lianhe Zaobao and Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun, were let in.
The hearing was due to last three days, court staff said.