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On the Witness Stand in Japan

Dovid Sussman

A decorated former agent of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration and an Israeli international expert on polygraphs are the newest players in the effort to release the remaining two “boys in Japan.” In a surprisingly flexible move, the Japanese court has admitted both their testimonies, indicating that the defendants were used as “blind mules” in a drug-trafficking operation they knew nothing about. Mr. Michael Levine and Professor Gershon Ben-Shakhar share their day in court.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

What do a professor of psychology at Hebrew University and a top American law enforcement officer have in common?

For one thing, they have both become key players in the massive effort to free Yaakov Yosef ben Reizel and Yoel Zev ben Mirel Rishe Chava, the two young men jailed in Japan on drug smuggling charges since April 2008.

(And their testimony just might be able to convince the Japanese courts of the boys’ innocence.

Yaakov Yosef, Yoel Zev, and their friend Yosef Bondo were found carrying hidden stashes of narcotics inside the suitcases that a third party asked them to transport to Japan. Their defense attorneys were concerned that the unprecedented heist, a total of twenty-four kilograms of narcotics, could prompt the authorities to demand prison sentences of twenty-five years.

Yosef ben Itah Rifka, the only minor (under the age of eighteen) among the three bochurim, was sentenced on April 30, 2009 to five years in jail in Japan, the maximum sentence for a minor. After he served ten and a half months in Japan, his lawyers’ request for him to serve the remainder of his sentence in his home country of Israel was granted. He was placed in the Rimonim prison and had been allowed to visit his family a few times over the last year. Taking into account the time that Yosef has already been in the Japanese jail, both prior and after his sentencing, and calculating a deduction of a portion of the sentence for good behavior, Yosef was released seven weeks ago.

Jews around the world continue to plead mercy for the older two bochurim, who face a much harsher and lengthier sentence. The feared sentence of twenty-five years was softened after eighteen months of arduous defense work, and the submission of over 120 pieces of evidence, at which point the prosecutor lowered his demands and requested that the court serve Yaakov Yosef with a thirteen-year forced labor jail term. Ultimately, the judges handed down a verdict of six years, in which they stipulated that the defendant’s crime was his lack of vigilance.

Yaakov Yosef’s case is currently on appeal in the High Court of Japan, following his conviction before Pesach of last year. At the same time, the lower court trial of Yoel Zev Goldstein took a turn in October, when the presiding judge was promoted and replaced. The new judge had barely any knowledge of the case and its details, and decided to postpone the closing arguments so that he could review the case further.

But getting at the truth, in this particular case, is a tricky issue for the Japanese court. While many criminal trials revolve around the question of whether the defendant actually committed a crime, these boys were caught with a huge stash of illegal drugs in their suitcases and there is no doubt that they did bring those drugs into Japan. Rather, the issue on trial is whether they were aware of the contents of their suitcases, which is far more difficult to prove.

While the boys have asserted that they were told they would be transporting religious articles — not drugs — the defense team faced a difficult challenge to prove their assertion, lacking firsthand witnesses. But that doesn’t mean there is no evidence. Michael Levine, a decorated former agent of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, argued that the boys’ behavior was characteristic of “blind mules,” individuals who are tricked into transporting illegal drugs without their knowledge.

Mr. Levine — who has decades of experience tracking drug traffickers and has testified in hundreds of drug-related trials — was in Japan at Yoel Zev’s trial this past July at the invitation of the original judge, where he testified in a day-long session in addition to submitting a forty-page brief.


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