Hearings for 2 Suspects Continue in Philippines, Making Extradition of 4 Suspects Before Feb. 8 Difficult

Sho Komine / The Yomiuri Shimbun
A lawyer for Japanese suspects in a series of alleged robberies-for-hire speaks to the press outside a Manila courthouse on Thursday after a hearing.

MANILA — Two of four Japanese men suspected of physically remote involvement in a recent string of robberies in Japan, currently being held in a detention center near Manila, are scheduled to face court hearings on Tuesday after decisions on their treatment were postponed on Thursday. The extradition of all four suspects together, which the Japanese government had sought and to which the Philippine side had agreed, now appears difficult to realize.

The four suspects being held at a local immigration facility are Yuki Watanabe, 38; Kiyoto Imamura, 38; Toshiya Fujita, 38; and Tomonobu Kojima, 45. The four were believed to have played key roles in a fraud group that Philippine investigative authorities cracked down on in 2019. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department issued arrest warrants for them on theft charges as the fraud targeted victims in Japan.

Court hearings for two of the four, Watanabe and Kojima, were held on Thursday over accusations of crimes including assault by Watanabe against his former wife. Prosecutors sought dismissal of those charges to clear the way for their deportation to Japan, saying the allegations had been fabricated to avoid extradition. In the Philippines, defendants facing criminal charges within the country cannot be deported.

According to their lawyer, judges did not reach a conclusion at the Thursday hearings, and instead set a date for another hearing on Tuesday. Watanabe and Kojima, who attended the hearings online, appeared to be suffering stress, according to their lawyer.

Meanwhile, Imamura and Fujita are expected to be sent back to Japan prior to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s visit to Japan starting on Feb. 8.

Earlier, the Philippine authorities had arranged with their Japanese counterparts to deport all four suspects as early as Tuesday. However, Philippine Justice Secretary Jesus Remulla said Thursday that Imamura and Fujita would be deported first, followed by the extradition of the remaining two.

The four are believed to be the chief operators of a special fraud group uncovered at its base in the Philippines in 2019. Even after being detained by Philippine immigration authorities, the four are thought likely to have used smartphones inside the facility to give instructions, under pseudonyms such as “Luffy,” to on-the-ground perpetrators of the series of robberies in Japan who were recruited via posts for “dark” part-time jobs on social media.