Friday September 28, 2001

Ex-Japanese Bureaucrat Found Guilty in HIV Case


TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese court on Friday found a former Health Ministry official guilty of negligence in connection with a scandal that exposed thousands to HIV through tainted blood products, but gave him a suspended sentence. 

The high-profile scandal, which grabbed headlines in the mid-1990s, spread deep into the ministry and rocked the nation with allegations of a government cover-up and unethical links between big business and bureaucrats. 

The Tokyo District Court sentenced Akihito Matsumura, who headed the Health Ministry's Biologics and Antibiotics Division from 1984 to 1986, to a year in prison, suspended for two years, a spokesman for the court said. 

Matsumura had been charged with professional negligence resulting in the deaths of patients given blood products tainted with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS. 

He was found guilty of negligence in the death of a patient with liver disease who contracted AIDS after being given unheated blood products in April 1986, Kyodo news agency said. 

But Matsumura was found not guilty in the death of another patient, who contracted AIDS after being given unheated blood products in May to June of 1985. 

Japan's Health Ministry did not ban unheated blood products until December 1985, despite knowing that they risked being tainted with HIV. Treating blood products with heat sterilizes them. 

More than 1,400 hemophiliacs were exposed to HIV as a result, and more than 500 are believed to have died as a result. 


Matsumura's trial made headlines in Japan partly because it dealt with charges against a former government official for his actions while in office. 

"We need to view the outcome seriously," Health Minister Chikara Sakaguchi told a news conference when asked about the court ruling. 

"We must make our best efforts to prevent such an incident from ever occurring again within this...ministry." 

In March, the Tokyo District Court ruled that Takeshi Abe, former vice-president of Teikyo University in Tokyo, was not guilty of professional negligence in the death of a young hemophiliac who contracted AIDS through unheated blood products. 

Prosecutors have since appealed the ruling in Abe's case to the Tokyo High Court. 

Abe was Japan's leading expert on hemophilia and AIDS during the 1980s, heading a research team set up by the Health Ministry to investigate the source of AIDS infection in Japan. 

Last February, Renzo Matsushita, a former president of Green Cross Corp, an Osaka-based firm that supplied blood products, was sentenced to two years in jail for professional negligence for his role in the death of a patient infected with HIV through tainted Green Cross products. 

Two other Green Cross executives received sentences ranging from 16 to 18 months.