Le Thi Thuy Linh was found guilty of abandoning the bodies of her two stillborn babies in Japan last year. The Vietnamese national has always maintained her innocence, and she is now appealing to the highest court.
Linh’s lawyers presented the grounds of his complaint on April 11. The 23-year-old was accused of abandoning and hiding the bodies of her two stillborn babies after giving birth in her dormitory in Ashikita, Kumamoto Prefecture.
Last July, the Kumamoto District Court found her guilty of abandonment of body for illegally disposing of the bodies of her twins and failing to fulfill her obligation to hold a funeral.
At a press conference on April 11, Linh insisted that she “didn’t hurt, abandon or hide” her twins in any way.
In August 2018, she started working as an intern at a tangerine farm in Kumamoto Prefecture. On November 15, 2020, she gave birth to stillborn twins, alone in her room. Linh wrapped the babies in a towel and put them in a box. She named them in a note, which also read, “Please rest in peace.” She closed the box and put it on a shelf in her bedroom. The next morning, worried about her health, she was taken to hospital by her supervisor, where she reported the deaths and was arrested.
Linh’s lawyer, Ishiguro Hiroki, explains that in most similar court cases, the charge of abandonment has been applied if the body is thrown away from the accused or hidden for a long time for criminal reasons. Ishiguro says that wasn’t the case with Linh. “She was in the same room as the bodies and only had them for 33 hours. I don’t understand why she was prosecuted in the first place.”
Linh appealed to the Fukuoka High Court, which in January overturned the previous decision. He ruled that “keeping the bodies in her room for about 33 hours does not constitute the crime of abandoning them by omission” and that “it cannot be said that she exceeded the time to fulfill her obligation to organize a funeral.
Yet the court pointed out that the defendant put one box inside another and sealed it with tape “in an effort to make it difficult for others to find out about the situation”. Also considering that Linh failed to inform her employer of her pregnancy, the court ruled that she was guilty of attempting to hide the bodies.
Linh and her lawyers say she used two boxes and sealed them with regular household tape so her babies wouldn’t get cold. The defense team also pointed to Linh’s physical and mental distress after giving birth.
Ishiguro argues that police and prosecutors failed to take into account the difficult situation Linh faced as a technical trainee.
A large majority of technical trainees are under the responsibility of supervisory bodies, such as local cooperatives or chambers of commerce. These entities are required to regularly check their well-being and whereabouts of their work. Linh says she didn’t believe her organization would protect her from being penalized for becoming pregnant and giving birth in Japan. On the contrary, she believed that she would be expelled.
The court acknowledged that Linh tried to hide her pregnancy in order to continue working and sending money to her family in Vietnam. She had accumulated debts of about 1.5 million yen, or $11,600, to work in Japan.
Linh received a lighter sentence of three months in prison, suspended for two years.
Technical trainees still under pressure
Support groups say Vietnamese agents who introduce interns to Japanese companies warn that pregnancy can be grounds for deportation.
Between June 2020 and September 2021, Professor Tanaka Masako from Sophia University in Tokyo interviewed 104 Vietnamese women working in Japan. She found that 38% had been told they would be penalized or expelled if they became pregnant, including all technical trainees.
“Most of the trainees are young women in their early twenties, often with little experience in contraception. Most are unmarried and are ashamed, don’t know what to do and are unable to speak,” says Tanaka. “They have borrowed large sums of money to come to Japan, so they are waiting for the very last day when they can continue to work.” She also notes that Linh’s twins were born earlier than expected.
Tanaka is working with support groups such as Kumustaka, an NGO supporting foreign women in the Kumamoto area, to develop a webpage in five languages, including Vietnamese. They aim to help technical interns and international students know their rights, and also offer information about pregnancy and childbirth in Japan.
Since March 2019, the Organization for the Training of Technical Interns (OTIT), which oversees the training of technical interns in Japan, has repeatedly warned companies and supervisory bodies that deportation of technical interns is prohibited. due to pregnancy.
Nakashima Shinichiro, head of Linh’s support team and director of Kumustaka, says those warnings have largely fallen on deaf ears. “The problem is that technical trainees are seen as just mechanical labor to be renewed every three or five years,” he says.
“A pregnant trainee is considered unable to work, and loses her work visa, without a source of income,” he continues. “Pregnant trainees may no longer have to go to the airport, but they are told that it is in their best interest to return to their country. Measures protecting the rights of technical trainees to give birth are hypocrisy. “
According to a survey by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, there were 637 cases of people having difficulty continuing their technical internship due to pregnancy or childbirth between November 2017 and end of 2020. Of these, only 11 – less than 2% – were able to resume training.
Nakashima says it is the responsibility of the Japanese Immigration Bureau and OTIT to monitor and genuinely crack down on rule violations, but very few sanctions have been implemented against supervisory entities.
Women’s rights at stake in Japan
Linh’s team insists his case isn’t just about interns. They say it concerns the rights of all women in Japan: “If we cannot change the decision, any woman – foreign or Japanese – can be prosecuted and found guilty if she suffers a stillbirth alone and keeps the body as Linh did,” Ishigurō said.
“If the Supreme Court upholds the decision of the Fukuoka High Court, it could set a devastating precedent for all women in Japan. That’s why we want women across the country to respond to this case.”
And the fans speak out. Linh’s team of lawyers presented the Supreme Court with 127 testimonies from women’s rights experts, as well as women who have given birth or had miscarriages. The group also presented more than 86,000 signatures of support.
In a letter, doctors from Seiryukai Jikei Hospital in Kumamoto City testified: “A high school girl unable to tell anyone about her pregnancy may be sentenced for giving birth to a stillborn baby alone.”
The hospital accepts newborn babies anonymously from women who have not been able to raise them for fifteen years. 76% of babies accommodated between April 2017 and March 2020 come from women who gave birth alone, more than double the rate fifteen years ago. Doctors insist the judgment could interfere with hospital operations as women may be afraid to seek medical help and doctors should consider the legal consequences.
Professor Tanaka says people like Linh are discriminated against for two reasons: because they are foreigners and because they are women. Tanaka also says it is imperative that social systems adapt. She emphasizes that all pregnant women in Japan have the right to give birth without being disadvantaged and that, whatever the circumstances they face, social support is simply essential, regardless of their nationality.
“I would never hurt my baby twins,” Linh said in tears during her press conference.
She and her team know that the chances of winning the Supreme Court of Japan are close to zero. At the same time, they must continue. Because their cause is about more than just one woman.