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By Mark Devlin

We, the jury

As the Nick Baker drug-smuggling case proves, the public deserves the truth when asked for its support

Mark Devlin is the publisher of Metropolis

Picture the scene: a sobbing mother sees her innocent son locked up in a Japanese prison for 14 years for smuggling drugs. “My boy is a good boy. He has been duped by a friend,” she cries. “He will not see his young son for 14 years. The Japanese justice system is barbaric, cruel, corrupt and inhumane.” She makes it her life’s work to free him, appearing in print, on TV and on the Internet. She creates a support group, sends letters to Tony Blair and collects money for her son’s legal costs. That boy is Nick Baker and his mum, Iris Baker, is the woman who will do anything for him.

I first became aware of Baker’s case in late 2003. A chef/gardener, Baker was traveling to Japan from the UK a few weeks ahead of the World Cup to tour stadia and collect souvenirs for his son. He stumbled off the flight drunk and tired. His friend and traveling companion, James Prunier, asked him to take his suitcase through customs while he waited for Baker’s bag. When Prunier’s suitcase was opened, Baker was found in possession of 40,000 ecstasy tablets, the largest amount ever seized in Japan, and a kilo of cocaine for good measure. While Prunier slipped away, Baker was sent down for 15 years. (A few months later in Belgium, Prunier was caught apparently duping other hapless tourists into carrying drug-laden bags through customs. In a further development Prunier was found dead on a railway line on August 17.)

After reading the website of a support group formed to help Baker, I felt pity for his family and anger at the Japanese criminal system. I contacted Iris Baker and offered to help. I made Internet banners promoting the case, solicited the support of other webmasters, ran a poll on Japan Today, and commissioned an article on the case in Metropolis (“Trial and error,” Feature, Nov 7). Combined with articles in newspapers and other magazines, there can’t be a foreigner in Japan who hasn’t heard of Nick Baker’s predicament.

I was surprised that public reaction was so critical. Poll results showed a majority of readers thought Baker was involved in the crime. Message-board posters pulled his story apart. It appeared that the community had not been convinced of his innocence or of the merits of his “mistreatment.”

To help counter this negative viewpoint, I asked Baker’s support group for clarification about certain points of the case. But they wouldn’t answer even simple questions. “We are not concerned with matters of guilt or innocence,” they said. “We want to make a noise so that Tony Blair will listen.” I was disturbed to see that so much of this “noise” involved using latent anti-Japanese sentiment to promote its goal. I became uneasy and ceased communications with the group and with Iris Baker.

It was then revealed that this wasn’t Baker’s first trip to Japan. In fact, he had visited just two months before his arrest. Why would someone with no connection to Japan visit twice in such a short time? Didn’t he pick up World Cup souvenirs on the first trip? Inconsistencies in his case have multiplied as more information has come to light— information that contradicts his supporters’ portrayal of Baker as an innocent abroad. Undaunted, they press on with the dubious claim that “Nick’s guilt or innocence is not important,” and continue to make noises about Baker’s right to a “fair trial”—even though they are not able to define what that might mean.

Whether new revelations prove Baker is guilty or not is a matter for the court to decide, but by keeping the public in the dark, Baker’s supporters will lose his battle in the media.

Metropolis is always willing to hear from concerned readers and support groups, but they should realize their responsibility to be open with the public when soliciting its help. In this Internet age, people demand more and if advocates can’t get their facts straight or are evasive, public opinion will naturally turn against them.

We should also be wary of relatives and support groups who promote an agenda by manipulating our willingness to believe that Japanese systems and institutions are inherently unfair. It’s disturbing to see comments that back acquittal for Baker simply because he is “one of us” or deriving from the hatred some have for the Japanese justice system. However much we dislike that system, criminals should not get off the hook simply because we don’t agree with it.

Unfortunately, Baker’s case makes it more difficult for other cases to be taken seriously. There are undoubtedly people in prison as the result of some miscarriage of justice. I hope that support groups will realize that it’s their ongoing responsibility to provide the means for Metropolis and the community to help them.

Nick Baker’s appeal is continuing.