Japan to Give Aid to Patients Who Drop Lawsuits

The Japanese government passed a law Wednesday
promising unspecified aid to victims of a rare neurological
disorder - but only if they withdraw lawsuits against the
government and the company that they say made them sick by dumping
mercury.

The law would also allow the indebted chemical company Chisso
Corp. to split into two entities and dissolve the parent company
once the payments are finished.

The law is expected to cover as many as 30,000 so-far
unrecognized victims of Minamata disease, which was first diagnosed
in 1956 and later was linked to the consumption of fish from
southern Kyushu island's Minamata Bay, where Chisso dumped tons of
mercury compounds.

"We are very pleased," Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura
said of the law's passage. "We will make utmost efforts to resolve
the Minamata issue."

However, a group of patients and activists criticized the law,
calling it a scheme to help the company, not the patients.

"The law is totally unacceptable," said patient Toshio Oishi,
a 69-year-old Minamata native who is suing the government for
compensation. "We'll continue our fight until all the patients are
rescued properly."

The disease causes spasms, blurred vision, sensory loss and
other symptoms. The babies of poisoned mothers are sometimes born
with gnarled limbs.

So far, the government has only recognized 2,000 Minamata
patients - and offered them free medical care - but at least 30,000
others have applied to be recognized as suffering from the
disorder.

Many of those have sued Chisso and also the government for not
stopping the company from dumping mercury until 1970, 14 years
after the problem was discovered. Victims' advocates say the
poisoning was much more widespread than the government is willing
to recognize.

A 2004 Supreme Court ruling held the government responsible for
allowing the pollution to continue for years after its discovery,
prompting renewed calls for the government to expand the scope of
support.

Minamata disease became an international symbol of environmental
damage and corruption behind Japan's rise to economic prominence.
Victims who spoke out say they were stigmatized, harassed by
company thugs and endured lengthy and costly legal battles.

The law passed Wednesday says that anyone who has applied for
Minamata status will be recognized and eligible for the aid, but
applicants must first drop any outstanding lawsuits.

The new law also allows cash-strapped Chisso to split into two
companies - one that runs its primary business and a holding
company to handle compensation to the victims.

Splitting up Chisso would allow the holding company to sell
stocks of the other to raise funds for payouts. The law also allows
the holding company to be liquidated, which patient activists say
could relieve Chisso further liability.


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