923 former leprosy patients sue Japan gov't.
(EDS: ADDING DETAILS OF FRESH CASES, COMBINING WITH STORY HEADLINED 'GOV'T TO DECIDE WHETHER TO APPEAL LEPROSY RULING WED.')
A total of 923 former leprosy patients filed three related suits against the state on Monday, demanding it pay them 115 million yen each in compensation for forcing them into isolation to undergo treatment for the disease.
The suits, filed at district courts in Tokyo, Okayama and Kumamoto, bring the number of plaintiffs suing the state to about 1,700, which would be 40% of those who entered state-run leprosariums, lawyers for the plaintiffs said.
The new cases come at a time when the government is considering appealing a May 11 ruling by the Kumamoto District Court ordering the state to pay compensation to former leprosy patients.
''The cases of close to 1,000 new people were brought about from our belief that our voices are at last being heard, and our hope that the state will not appeal,'' a plaintiffs' lawyer said at a news conference.
Later in the day, the former patients and their lawyers visited the premier's official residence to urge Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi not to appeal the Kumamoto District Court ruling.
''We could never accept an appeal. We must fight with our lives,'' said Kazumi Sogano, a 73-year-old head of a group of plaintiffs.
About 20 representatives demanded they be let in at the gate of the residence. The crowd became rowdy after one of Koizumi's secretaries refused their request for a meeting, saying they cannot urge the premier not to appeal while the case is still in the legal process.
Asked whether he would meet with the plaintiffs, Koizumi told reporters at the Diet, ''I will consider the issue, including its timing.''
Meanwhile, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told senior officials of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) that the government hopes to formally decide Wednesday whether to appeal the Kumamoto court ruling, LDP officials said.
Fukuda, the top government spokesman, dropped a strong hint later that although the government will appeal the ruling, it will seek some form of out-of-court settlement afterward.
''The matter involves the basic principle of the separation of administration, legislation and judicature, the limit of administrative responsibility, as well as the basic idea of national governance. We must deal with it in a prudent manner,'' he said.
''But even if we do appeal the ruling, we believe that we need consideration for the former patients in the areas of medical treatment and welfare.''
In the landmark ruling, the Kumamoto court ordered the state to pay a total of 1.82 billion yen in compensation to 127 former leprosy patients who claimed the state violated their human rights by forcing them into isolation under the 1953 Leprosy Prevention Law, which has since been repealed.
The court backed the plaintiffs' claim that the state was wrong to maintain the prewar isolation policy in formulating the 1953 law, as it was known then that the disease is not highly contagious and medication to cure it was developed in the 1940s.
The fresh cases were brought to court after lawyers visited 13 state-run leprosariums where more than 4,400 former patients still live, and convinced them to sue.
The former patients have been strongly urging the state not to appeal the Kumamoto ruling. They say a continuation of the suit would mean the government rejects a settlement of the issue, as the average age of the plaintiffs is now over 74 and the process could take a long time.