Japan on Friday carried out the first execution of a man who had been convicted by lay judges, as part of a pair of hangings that were condemned by human rights groups.
The two executions bring to 14 the total number of death sentences carried out since Shinzo Abe became prime minister three years ago.
Japanese media quoted a justice ministry official as saying that Sumitoshi Tsuda had been hanged for killing three people in May 2009. Tsuda, 63, was the first inmate to be executed following a conviction by a new system introduced in 2009to give citizen jurors a role in sentencing, along with a panel of judges.
Campaigners described the executions as “a cruel form of punishment”.
Roseann Rife, East Asia research director at Amnesty International, said: “The Japanese authorities’ willingness to put people to death is chilling and must end now before more lives are lost. The death penalty is not justice or an answer to tackling crime, it is a cruel form of punishment that flies in the face of respect for life.
“Japan should immediately introduce an official moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolition of the death penalty.”
Some campaigners hoped lay judges would be more reluctant to convict defendants accused of crimes that carry the death penalty - particularly those who claim they were forced to confess - but the number of accused to have been sentenced to death under the system now stands at 26.
The justice minister, Mitsuhide Iwaki, told reporters that the lay judges had arrived at a “very grave” judgement after lengthy deliberations.
The second hanged man, Kazuyuki Wakabayashi, 39, had been convicted of the murder of a 52-year-old woman and her daughter in 2006. He was sentenced to death by judges.
Japan has resisted international pressure to abolish the death penalty, notably from the UN and the European Union. Public support for capital punishment has remained strong since Aum Supreme Truth, a doomsday cult, killed 13 people and injured thousands of others in a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.
Japan and the US are the only two advanced industrial nations that retain the death penalty. Last year, only 22 countries carried out executions, and as of November this year, 140 countries had abolished capital punishment in law or in practice, according to Amnesty.
“Japan’s continued use of the death penalty makes it stand out for all the wrong reasons – across the world, and increasingly also in the East Asia region,” Rife said.
Japan’s “secret” executions have been condemned as particularly cruel. Typically, prisoners are kept in solitary confinement for years and given only a few hours’ notice before being led to the gallows. Their families and lawyers are usually notified about the execution only after it has taken place.
Amnesty said that several prisoners with mental and intellectual disabilities are known to have been executed or remain on death row.
Doubts have also been raised over the safety of death penalty convictions in Japan. Iwao Hakamada, who had spent more than 45 years on death row, was freed last year after a court ordered a retrial in his murder case, amid suggestions that police investigators fabricated evidence against him.
Before Friday’s executions Japan had 128 inmates on death row, local media said.