The loneliness is overwhelming. Yoel G., Yaakov Yosef G., and Yossi B. have spent ten months in solitary confinement, sitting on a hard concrete floor, their mobility severely restricted. They have no contact with anyone they know, except for their lawyers. No visitors are permitted, with the exception of parents, whom they may only see briefly and infrequently. Even these visits are held through a glass partition, and monitored by guards and interpreters.
And the fear. How long will they have to remain in these forbidding jail cells, thousands of miles away from their homes and yeshivos? Will they be sentenced to a decade of forced labor by a judge who cannot comprehend the naiveté of innocent yeshiva bachurim cruelly exploited by ostensibly pious Jews? Will they ever again lead a normal, Jewish life after being “reformed” by the highly efficient Japanese corrections system?
Yossi was only 17 at the time of his arrest; Yaakov Yosef was 19. Lack of kosher food has caused one of the boys to lose 100 pounds, and another to lose 60.
It started out as an innocent favor for a friend. Yoel, Yaakov Yosef and Yossi were kindhearted yeshiva bachurim who spent their spare time doing chesed for sick people in Bnei Brak, and when someone they knew and trusted approached them with an assignment of a different nature, they had no reason to think anything was amiss.
“I have a friend who is an antique dealer,” the person told them, “and he needs to deliver some antiques to Japan for the Tokyo 2008 Art Fair that will be taking place in a few weeks. He is unable to go himself, due to family obligations, so he asked me to find three bachurim to each take one parcel containing valuable antiques. He is willing to pay $1,000 to each of you on your return for the effort.”
The boys recognized the name of the antique dealer, a prominent and respected member of the religious community in Eretz Yisrael. Nothing about the assignment sounded suspicious, and the promise of some bein hazmanim pocket money was inviting.
The boys were told their assignment was 100% legal and that the antiques they would be delivering did not have to be declared at Japanese customs. Instead of receiving a parcel, they were each given an empty suitcase and instructed to put their personal belongings inside. The antiques, they were told, had been placed in a sealed compartment inside the suitcases as a precaution against theft, damage or accidental loss.
They did not dream the sealed compartments of the three suitcases contained narcotics worth $3.6 million. They did not dream the favor they were being asked to do was a mask for a crime punishable by ten years of imprisonment and forced labor. And they did not dream that instead of the $1,000 in pocket money they had been promised for their effort, Jews the world over would have to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to wage a massive legal battle on their behalf.
Upon arrival at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, the three unsuspecting boys placed their luggage onto the x-ray machine. Japanese customs officials spotted the hidden compartments, cut open the suitcases, and discovered a total of over 50 pounds of narcotics cleverly concealed inside. The boys were immediately arrested and placed in solitary confinement.
For the next 21 days, the three were subjected to grueling interrogation. The 2,500-page record of this interrogation, as well as the results of polygraph tests, showed clearly that none of the boys had any knowledge of the hidden contents of their luggage. But the law is the law, especially in Japan, where there is a zero-tolerance attitude to crime. The Japanese stance on illegal substances is one of the toughest in the world, and 99.9% of people caught smuggling drugs into Japan are convicted. Sentences can range between 10 and 15 years of prison and forced labor.
By the time Japanese prisoners are released, they are fully “reformed,” usually with drastically diminished physical and mental capabilities. The Japanese corrections system is designed to act as a powerful deterrent to crime, and indeed, the crime rate in Japan is infinitesimal compared to other westernized countries.
Ten months in jail have taken their toll on the boys physically and emotionally, and they and their families tremble at the thought of what ten years of imprisonment and forced labor will do to them. Experts estimate that young, sheltered yeshiva bachurim like Yoel, Yaakov Yosef and Yossi would not survive even one year of prison without permanent damage.
Both Yossi and Yaakov Yosef are considered minors by Japanese law, but they are nevertheless being tried in adult court in light of the severity with which the Japanese authorities view their alleged crime. Yossi’s trial was held at the beginning of February; he is now awaiting sentencing. The trials of Yoel and Yaakov Yosef are due to begin shortly, but it will be several months before all of the verdicts are delivered.
Yoel and Yaakov Yosef are managing to learn Torah and have completed a number of masechtos in the detention center as they await trial. The three boys struggle valiantly to adhere to halacha, despite their circumstances, and have sought rabbinic guidance in how to cope with the unique halachic challenges they face.
Askanim in Eretz Yisrael, the U.S., England and Belgium have worked tirelessly to provide them with kosher food, religious articles and medical attention. More importantly, they have invested tremendous efforts into putting together top-notch defense teams for each of the boys. These teams are composed of both Japanese lawyers and experts in international law such as Mordechai Tzivin, an Israeli and international lawyer; the well-known Dayan Chaim Yosef Dovid Weiss of Antwerp; Rabbi Jacob Bleich, chief rabbi of Ukraine; Rabbi Aaron Nezri of London; and Rabbi Elimelech Bindiger.
Yoel, Yaakov Yosef and Yossi are not just three boys sitting in jail in Japan. They are our brothers, they are our children. If you or your child were in their situation, you would desperately want kind Jews to come to your aid. That’s how these boys feel. They are totally dependent on the mercy of the Ribbono Shel Olam, the mercy of the Japanese judges, and the mercy of Klal Yisrael.
The first way we can help the boys is by intensifying our tefillos on their behalf and begging Hashem that the judges be fully convinced of their innocence. The full Hebrew names of the boys are: Yoel Zev ben Mirel Reesa Chava; Yaakov Yosef ben Raizel; and Yosef ben Ita Rivka.
The second way we can help is by shouldering some of the costs of the legal and humanitarian assistance they require. These costs have already surpassed $800,000, and askanim project that a minimum of $500,000 more will be needed until all the trials are over.
The mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim overrides Shabbos and takes precedence over all other forms of tzedakah. Whatever our financial situation, whatever other obligations we might have, we must remember that boys are relying on our kindness and generosity.
The cost of legal and humanitarian assistance has already surpassed $800,000, and askanim project a minimum of $500,000 more will be needed. Tax-deductible contributions can be sent to the rabbonim listed in the ad on page 11 of this week’s Jewish Press.