​A portrait of Nepali migrant worker Arjun Bahadur Singh at a news conference in Tokyo on Wednesday in which Japanese human rights lawyer Yoshihito Kawakami​ announced a lawsuit for 7 million yen in damages from the Japan government for his death in police custody. SAKURA MURAKAMI / JAPAN TIMES​

The widow of a Nepali migrant worker in Tokyo has sued the Japan government for compensation after her husband died in police custody, allegedly due to mistreatment.

Human rights lawyers working with Ambika Singh, 39, filed the lawsuit claiming 7 million yen ($63,000) in damages from the Japanese government and the Tokyo Municipality for the death of her husband, Arjun Bahadur Singh in March 2017. 

Ambika is currently in Tokyo, and told a news conference this week: “I want to know how my husband died, and who is responsible if he was killed.” 

Arjun Singh first came to Japan to work as a cook in a Nepali restaurant in Saitama Prefecture in 2011 to support his wife and two daughters back home in Bajura. After being hospitalised with TB five years later, he went back to Nepal. He couldn’t find a job and had amassed Rs 2.2 million in debt to pay middlemen, so he returned to Japan.

But he could not hold his new job, and was reportedly living in the sidewalks. He was apprehended during a routine police street patrol, and when searched police found in his possession a credit card that had been reported lost. The lawyers maintain that Arjun Singh had found the card on the street, but had never used it.

During his detention in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, police said Singh was unruly, threw furniture around and attacked officers. He was then shackled and handcuffed before being taken in for interrogation at the Tokyo Prosecutor’s Office.

After he continued to protest, police reportedly took off his handcuffs after which he collapsed and was taken to hospital where he was declared dead. Doctors were not able to ascertain the cause of death.

The lawsuit has taken the testimony of a doctor who said being shackled and handcuffed for a prolonged period had caused muscle necrosis, leading to elevated potassium levels in the blood, which killed him.

Tohru Takahashi, a Japanese human rights activist with Solidarity Network with Migrants Japan, told Nepali Times that investigation had shown evidence of serious police mistreatment. To protect the body for later tests, Takahashi along with fellow-activist Azuma Toyohisa took the body to a Zen temple in Nagoya and carried out an autopsy. 

Takahashi said: “The body was the evidence, so we had to prevent it from being cremated. Even dead people have human rights.”

With the help from head priest and Nepalis in Nagoya, Takahashi and Toyohisa paid for the autopsy and to bring Singh’s wife, Ambika, from Nepal in June 2017 for the funeral at the temple, and again this week for the lawsuit. 

Nepali Times had interviewed Ambika Singh last December in Kathmandu, during which she complained about the lack of help from the Nepal Embassy in Tokyo, and expressed gratitude to Japanese volunteer activists.

“If it wasn’t for the Japanese people who helped me, I would never have been able to take my husband’s ashes back to Nepal, I hope no one has to go through what I did. I couldn’t tell whether I was living a nightmare or a reality,” she told us.

Japanese activists say the Singh case is emblematic of the struggle for justice for migrant workers in Japan. One of the lawyers involved in the lawsuit, Ryutaro Ogawa, was quoted in the Japan Times as saying: “This issue is of course about the appropriate use of restraints, but it’s also about how foreign workers don’t get the support they need when they lose their job … I think there is a lot to learn from this case.”