Originally published in the Asahi Shimbun
Muslims can still be monitored in Japan solely based on their religion, while in the United States courts are cracking down on granting such approval.
An appeal by 17 Muslim plaintiffs accusing police of snooping on them was dismissed by the Japanese Supreme Court in late May, which upheld lower court decisions.
The plaintiffs argued that “carrying out surveillance of us on grounds of our religion amounts to discrimination and is a violation of the Constitution” in the lawsuit filed against the Tokyo metropolitan and the central government.
Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department had been keeping close tabs on Muslims solely because of their religion, reasoning it was pre-empting possible terrorism.
The tide changed in the United States after the leak in 2013 of global surveillance programs and classified information from the National Security Agency by U.S. computer expert Edward Snowden, said Ben Wizner, attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.
Snowden, a former CIA employee, revealed that U.S. intelligence agencies had secretly collected personal information and communications from the Internet.
The leak revealed the extent of clandestine surveillance on the public by the government for the first time.
The recent Japanese case came to light in 2010 after 114 articles from internal MPD documents containing personal information on Muslim residents in Japan were leaked online. Data included names, photos, addresses, employers and friends.
The leaked data showed that the documents were compiled in a style of a resume on each individual, along with a record of tailing them.
Compensation of 90 million yen ($874,000) was awarded to the plaintiffs by the Tokyo District Court and the Tokyo High Court, which ruled there was a “flaw in information management.”
However, the plaintiffs appealed because the courts stated “surveillance of Muslims” was “unavoidable” in order to uncover terror plots.
The top court sided with lower court rulings, declaring the surveillance was not unconstitutional. A Moroccan man, one of the 17, said he was upset by the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“I am disappointed with the Japanese judiciary,” said the man in his 40s.
He said he was terrified by the sarin gas attack of 1995 on the Tokyo subway system, which he himself experienced. The attack left 13 people dead and thousands injured.
“Has there been a terror attack by Muslims in Japan?” he said. “Surveillance is a breach of human rights.”
After the 9/11 attacks in the United States in 2001, investigative authorities heightened their surveillance of Muslim communities.
But recent U.S. court rulings have seen the judiciary move against the trend.
Two lawsuits were filed in the state of New York and New Jersey after The Associated Press news agency in 2011 reported on the wide-ranging surveillance of Muslim communities in the two states by the New York Police Department.
Last October, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit handed down a decision in favor of the plaintiffs, sending the lawsuit in New Jersey back to the district court for further proceedings.
New York police reached a settlement with plaintiffs in January, banning investigations solely on the basis of religion.
In 2006, the German Constitutional Court delivered a ruling restricting surveillance.
Masanori Naito, a professor of modern Muslim regions at Doshisha University’s Graduate School in Kyoto, blasted the Supreme Court’s decision as a manifestation of its “sheer ignorance” of Islam.
Although Muslims account for more than 20 percent of the global population of 7.3 billion, only a fraction reside in Japan.
“As a result, Japanese tend to think that all Muslims are violent,” he said. “Conducting surveillance will only stir up a feeling of incredulity among Muslims and backfire. What police should do is to enhance their understanding of Muslim communities and make an effort to gather information.”