Japan’s use of the death penalty is expected to come under unprecedented domestic pressure when, for the first time, the country’s legal community calls for its abolition next month.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations, whose membership includes 37,000 lawyers and hundreds of other legal professionals, said it would declare its opposition to capital punishment at a meeting in early October due to growing concern over miscarriages of justice.
The declaration will put the federation at odds with the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, whose administration has executed 16 people since it took office in late 2012.
Successive Japanese governments have resisted pressure from the UN, the European Union and human rights groups to abolish the death penalty.
“If an innocent person or an offender who does not deserve to be sentenced to death is executed, it is an irrevocable human rights violation,” Yuji Ogawara, who heads a bar association panel on the death penalty, was quoted as saying by Kyodo news agency.
“There are still lawyers who support the death penalty, but I think we have developed an environment that enables us to seek its abolition.”
The federation will call for an end to capital punishment by 2020, when Japan hosts a UN congress on crime prevention and criminal justice. It said life sentences without the possibility of parole should be considered as an alternative.
Japan and the US are the only G7 countries that continue to execute inmates, while more than 140 countries have abolished the death penalty either by law or in practice.
Doubts about the safety of convictions grew in 2014 after Iwao Hakamada was released after spending more than 45 years on death row. A court ordered a retrial in Hakamada’s murder case, amid suggestions that police investigators fabricated evidence against him.
The former professional boxer had been sentenced to hang in 1968 for the murders two years earlier of a company president, his wife and their two children.
In addition, four death row inmates were found not guilty after being granted retrials in the 1980s.
Japan has resisted calls to end capital punishment, citing opinion polls showing high levels of support for its retention. Public backing for the death penalty has remained strong during the trials of people accused of taking part in the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, in which 13 people died and thousands were injured.
In a damning 2009 report, Amnesty International accused Japan of subjecting death row inmates to “ cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment. Prisoners typically spend many years in solitary confinement, and only learn of the timing of their execution, by hanging, hours before it takes place.
Amnesty recently criticised Japan for executing or placing mentally ill and intellectually challenged prisoners in solitary confinement.
Legal experts welcomed the federation’s decision.
“Having Japan’s largest human rights protection body come out in favour of eliminating the death sentence will have a huge impact,” Professor Kana Sasakura from Konan University in Kobe told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.
There are now 124 inmates on death row in Japan, 89 of whom are seeking retrials, according to the justice ministry.