Monday, 28 August 2006

Long wait, sudden death in Japan

[Please note: long post]
Amnesty International (AI) has condemned the secrecy, lengthy delays and failures of criminal justice that beset Japan's death penalty system.

The human rights organisation released its July report Will this day be my last? to add pressure on the Japanese government to abolish the death penalty and reform aspects of its criminal justice and penal systems.

AI said it released the report as "activists and experts on the death penalty from across Asia-Pacific" met in Hong Kong to discuss the region's high rate of executions.

In this post:
· Executed at any time
· Japan's secret shame
· Innocent on death row?
· Preventing public debate
· Time for an end

Executed at any time
AI said death row prisoners live in a harsh and secretive prison system, where they may spend decades knowing they could be executed at any time.

It said a prisoner is usually notified in the morning on the day of their execution, and in some cases the prisoner is not notified at all.

According to the report: "This practice means that prisoners live with the constant fear of execution, not knowing from day to day whether they will be alive the next day. Once the appeal process is finalized, a prisoner can wait for years or decades before execution."

Earlier this year, a survey of death row prisoners by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations found that about a quarter of Japan's death row prisoners received no visitors and most spent their days locked alone in a small cell. Many who received visitors only had contact with their relatives or their lawyers.

Because of the long delays in the legal process and appeals in Japan, prisoners can wait decades to be executed.

The report says that Okunishi Masaru is "one of a number of very elderly prisoners on Japan's death row", having been sentenced to death in 1961 for poisoning five women. He is now 80 years old.

According to the report: "In April 2005, the Nagoya High Court granted a retrial citing new evidence that could prove his innocence. His supporters are urging that his retrial begin soon: in March 2006 he is said to have told visitors, "Please clear my false charge while I am alive." "

Japan's secret shame
The AI report describes a death penalty system where only the authorities know when an execution will take place. When a person is executed, "it usually occurs while Parliament is in recess and unable to debate the issue".

"According to a former Minister of Justice, Usui Hideo, this policy is designed to deprive opposition politicians of any opportunity 'to cause a big public row over the death penalty'," the report says. The only information about the execution of death sentences in Japan comes from statistics issued periodically by the Ministry of Justice. The government does not release the names of executed prisoners.

"The families of those on death row live under the constant pressure of knowing their loved ones face execution and that in many cases their death may come without warning," the report says.

The AI report cites the experience of Kimura Shuji's mother, who arrived to visit her son on death row on the morning of 21 December 1995. She was told visiting hours were busy and to come back at noon. She returned and was asked whether she wanted to take her son's body for burial.

"Many families abandon their condemned relatives in such circumstances either because of the shame of having a family member on death row or an inability to cope with the stress of continuing the relationship."

Innocent on death row?
AI claims that there is a "particularly high" risk of executing an innocent person in Japan because of the system of pre-trial detention in police custody, or daiyi kangoku.

"Suspects can be held in police cells for up to 23 days and are vulnerable to long periods of interrogation," the report says.

"Akahori Masao was sentenced to death in 1958 aged 25 on charges of rape and murder. He always claimed he was innocent and had confessed under duress, saying, "the interrogators hit me on the head, almost strangled me with their hands and kicked me... I decided to agree with all their questions because I could not put up with the torture."

"It was not until 1987, after four court applications, that his retrial began. He was acquitted aged 59, having spent over 34 years in detention."

Preventing public debate
AI said the secrecy surrounding Japan's death penalty system had suppressed and distorted public debate about its use.

Even Japanese parliamentarians have found it difficult to monitor detention conditions for condemned prisoners. The report says that in 2003 nine executive members of the parliamentary Committee on Judicial Affairs had to fight for the right to see the new execution chamber at the Tokyo Detention Centre.

"It was reportedly the first time since 1973 that the Ministry of Justice allowed people outside the penal and justice systems to see a death chamber."

Despite their requests, the parliamentarians were prevented from meeting with death row prisoners.

"Successive governments in Japan have failed to initiate a parliamentary debate about the death penalty. Ministers of Justice have also indicated that the role of the government in relation to the death penalty was to administer its use, but not to intervene in its discussion."

The report notes that "the Japan Federation of Bar Associations (JFBA) also states that one of the main reasons that capital punishment has not been abolished in Japan is due to the extraordinary secrecy that surrounds the death penalty system and the subsequent lack of information for potential public debate".

The organisation urged the Japanese government to take note of criticisms about its administration of the death penalty raised by activists in Japan, international human rights groups and organisations such as the UN and Council of Europe.

"The government has an obligation to initiate an informed public and parliamentary debate on the use of the death penalty, which in turn means ending the secrecy surrounding executions in Japan," the report says.

Time for an end
The report makes a series of six recommendations to the Japanese government, including abolishing the death penalty, improving prison conditions and taking steps to end torture, ill-treatment and coerced confessions.

"Japan is one of the few industrialised countries which still carry out state killings," said Suki Nagra, AI's East Asia Campaigner.

"By abolishing the death penalty Japan would provide leadership to the Asia-Pacific region, which is currently bucking the global trend towards abolition." As a first step towards abolition, we urge the Japanese government to end the secrecy currently surrounding its use of the death penalty.

"The government cannot justify this inhuman punishment on the basis of public opinion when it conceals the reality of the death penalty from people and so stymies public debate," Suki Nagra said.

Tags: death penalty Japan Amnesty International

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