Thursday, 8 October 2009

Amnesty damns Japan's death row as cruel, inhuman

From ABC Radio Australia
11 September 2009

The use of the death penalty is on the decline globally. Japan is one of the few industrialised countries to continue to use it, hanging a smalll number of prisoners each year. Amnesty International says the conditions for those on Japan's death row to be curel, inhuman and degrading.

Listen to the interview here.

Presenter: Stephanie Foxley
Speaker: James Welsh, Amnesty International's health expert

WELSH: Yes, this report deals with mental health aspects of death penalty in Japan. We have have had long standing concerns about the death penalty itself in Japan but of growing concern are reports that mentally ill prisoners are being sentenced to death and are being executed. what we've found in trying to investigate the problem was firstly that there are major obstacles to anyone finding out information about the situation of prisoners on death row in Japan it's a very secret and secretive system and this has been found not just by us but by lawyers in Japan and also UN bodies trying to assess the situation. What we found was that prisoners on death row are kept in very harsh conditions, they are isolated, the are prevented from talking to staff or other prisoners and this level of pressure, together with the knowledge that they are going to be executed has a major impact on their mental health. Added to that there's a fact that prisoners are not given a date of their execution, which means every day the potentially face the fact that this could be their last day and this ratchets up the level of pressure on the prisoners. The families of course, are likewise not given notice of the execution of their family member. So all in all it's secretive, it's harsh and it's likely to give rise to high levels of mental stress.

FOXLEY: How many prisoners are we talking about?

WELSH: At the moment there are 102 prisoners on death row in Japan. There are other prisoners who's trials are ongoing, so some of those will certainly join their fellow prisoners on death row. Then others may face execution or may die of natural causes.

FOXLEY: What's the percentage of those that have been diagnosed as mentally ill?

WELSH: Well, that's an extremely relevant question and one that's very hard to answer precisely because of the level of secrecy that applies. We site 5 cases in our report, two of which we give in considerable detail drawing on court documents on medical assessments made for the court. But the answer is, we just don't know, we suspect that there are high levels of mental health problems ranging from mild to very serious, but we just don't know.

FOXLEY: Are there not international standards that are supposed to be followed with regard to the welfare of prisoners, even those on death row?

WELSH: Yes, all prisoners should be protected by basic standards. The Human Rights Committee for the UN has made precisely this point to the Japanese authorities on many many occasions, particularly expressing grave concern about the lack of notice of execution and the impact that could have on prisoners. but up to this point that has been no satisfactory response from the authorities. Now, there was an election in Japan very recently, and a new government will come to power next week, they have committed themselves to a public dialogue on the death penalty, so we see this as quite a hopeful point of entry for our report and for a wider discussion on the death penalty itself in Japan.

FOXLEY: Have you had any confirmation that there will be a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty permanently?

WELSH: There has been no such commitment given, we would be very keen to see such a moratorium take place to allow for a proper debate. We will be making this point to the new government and we will have to see how they respond.

FOXLEY: If the death penalty is not abolished, is there likely to be any abuse of claiming mental illness to avoid the death penalty, is this perhaps one of Japans worries?

WELSH: I don't know if it's a worry. It's a point that can be raised or discussed, in some of the cases we are talking about, the evidence is quite striking. We don't have any concerns that there could be fraud or faked mental illnesses, it's not an easy thing to fake effectively, particularly given the nature of some of the prisoners, they are not medical students, they haven't read up on mental health issues. So, it's a point that can be raised but it's a trivial point and I expect the debate to come down to that level.

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