Saturday, 12 April 2008

Japan: Minister steps up rate of hangings

Japan hanged four death row prisoners on Thursday this week (10 April), marking a sharp increase in the rate of hangings in the past two years.

The latest executions bring to ten the number of death warrants approved by Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama. He has approved in four months the same number of hangings his predecessor approved in 11 months.

The justice ministry confirmed the identity of the four men, only the third time it had done so. They were Katsuyoshi Nakamoto, 64, Masaharu Nakamura, 61, Masahito Sakamoto, 41, and Kaoru Okashita, 61.

Nakamoto and Nakamura were hanged in Osaka, and Sakamoto and Okashita in Tokyo.

The BBC online reported that Hatoyama dismissed concerns about the increase in executions.

"I have not paid any attention to the interval [since February's executions]," he told reporters.

"As justice minister, I am simply carrying out the demands of the law."

As well as the rate of executions increasing, it also appears the minister is moving to implement faster executions after a death sentence is confirmed, something he called for in September 2007.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported three of the four men executed were hanged within four years of their death sentences being finalised. During the previous decade, the average wait was about eight years.

Human rights concern
Human rights organisation Amnesty International said it deeply regretted the latest executions, and expressed its alarm at the current rate of hangings.

The organisation's Japan chapter condemned the executions and questioned the guilt of three of the men hanged.

"It is unforgivable that the executions were again conducted secretly," said spokesperson Makoto Teranaka, according to a report by the AFP newsagency.

"Observing the current pace of executions, we can't help but predict a huge number of executions this year, which goes totally against the world trend of abolishing capital punishment and is a shame on Japan."

The organisation said two of the executed prisoners were acquitted in early trials, and a third continued to insist on his innocence. It said the fourth may have been mentally ill.

Concerns about the pace of executions were echoed in a statement issued by Amnesty International in London.

"We are extremely concerned about the increased number of executions,” the statement said.

"We call on the Japanese government to adopt an immediate moratorium on executions in accordance with last year's UN resolution."

The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions as a step towards abolition, by a majority of 104 votes to 54.

A poet silenced
According to the AFP report, the four executed this week included a poet who wrote traditional poetry expressing remorse for the two murders for which he was convicted.

Kaoru Okashita, who also used the surname Akinaga, wrote traditional tanka poetry on death row.

The head of a tanka club who published Okashita's poetry said he regularly sent her poems and she had only just sent back the latest proof-read verse.

"He once told me he hoped to live until next year when our group's tanka anthology is published. But his wish wasn't realised," Keiko Mitsumoto said.

"His poetry was very, very gentle and even offered solace and encouragement to me. I could hardly believe he would commit murder.

"He said he feared the day would suddenly come when the footsteps of a guard would stop in front of his cell to announce his execution.

"He seemed prepared for that, though, along with not meeting those close to him for a final farewell."

Related stories:
Japan: Sixteen hanged in thirteen months -- 04 February, 2008
Japan finally names three executed -- 9 December, 2007
Minister wants ‘tranquil’ killing: Japan -- 29 October, 2007
Japan: New minister will approve hangings -- 4 September, 2007
Japan executed mentally ill man -- 26 August, 2007
Long wait, sudden death in Japan -- 28 August, 2006

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