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RIGHTS-JAPAN: Death Penalty Still Hangs In The Balance

Suvendrini Kakuchi

TOKYO, Sep 6 2010 (IPS) - It has been a long and exhausting wait for anti-death penalty campaigners like Akiko Takada, but there are few signs that capital punishment will be taken off Japan’s law books any time soon.

This is despite the fact that there has been more than usual discussion of the death penalty in a country that has had it since 1868, during the Meiji Era.

The strongest opponent to changing the death penalty law has been the Justice Ministry. But for the first time since the end of World War II, Justice Minister Keiko Chiba on Aug. 27 sanctioned a visit by the press to certain areas of the execution chamber. Death sentences are carried out by hanging.

High-level officials are also scheduled to discuss the viability of capital punishment, according to news reports.

Takada, spokeswoman for Forum 90, Japan’s leading citizens’ movement against the death penalty, concedes that these make for some progress. But often too, she adds, the so-called changes are typically piecemeal. For instance, she points out, visitors were not allowed to see the room underneath the execution hall, where the broken, bloodied bodies of convicts fall to.

“Officials have deliberately hidden the cruelty of the hanging process, meaning we will continue to find it difficult to change public opinion,” Takada says.

In Japan, the death penalty has usually been meted out to those convicted of two or more murders. Japan and the United States are the only members of the Group of Seven (G7) industrialised countries to conduct executions.

But despite international campaigns against capital punishment, activists have found a similar effort an uphill battle in Japan.

From an initial 5,500 members during its launch more than two decades ago, Forum 90 has seen this dwindle to some 4,000 members today.

A survey of Japan’s Cabinet showed that 85 percent supported the death penalty. Following tremendous socio-political pressure, Japan’s justice ministry allowed two executions to be carried out in July – even though the justice minister is known to oppose the death penalty.

A December 2009 survey by the Justice Ministry revealed that close to 52 percent of Japanese believe that criminals who had committed heinous crimes should atone for it with their lives. A similar number feel that the abolishment of capital punishment would lead to an increase in such heinous crimes.

But critics say the survey was unfairly framed by the ministry to instill fear among the public, using leading questions such as: “Are you against the death penalty regardless of the situation?”

Questions framed in this way “clearly creates an environment to tell people there is no other choice”, argues Nobutu Hosaka, a former member of Parliament who heads a group lobbying for the abolishment of the death penalty.

A member of the Social Democratic Party, Hosaka, along with others in his group, seeks a moratorium on executions that he hopes will at least stop more deaths and create space for proper public debate.

The July executions marked the first under Japan’s ruling Democratic Party – which has traditionally been an opponent of the death penalty – since it took power in September 2009. There are 107 people on death row.

“The system in Japan is particularly offensive to activists because hangings are cloaked in secrecy, and polls are aimed at creating public support by indicating that crime must be punished,” says Yuji Ogawara, a lawyer who launched an Internet website to promote public debate on the death penalty.

Ogawara believes that there would be far less public support for the death penalty if Japanese people are educated on the harsher aspects of capital punishment, such as death-row inmates being put in solitary confinement for years with no family visits, and being informed only at the last minute of their impending execution.

In some cases, too, prisoners continue to insist on their innocence, raising questions about possible errors in the justice system. “(But) the families of the inmates do not speak out, fearing social ostracism,” Ogawara adds.

Almost all of the prisoners that have been sentenced to death are from families that faced poverty, domestic upheaval or suffered from mental health problems, activists say based on the limited information that anti-death penalty groups here have managed to gather.

According to Forum 90, many convicts were unable to afford private criminal lawyers for their defence. Likewise, many families usually did not accept the return of their relatives’ bodies after they were hanged. “The reason for such rejection is strong discrimination against (such) family members in Japanese society,” explains Takada.

Data also indicate that most inmates live in fear and anxiety while awaiting death, and that lawyers and volunteers are barred from visiting death-row offenders. Family visits, while allowed, are rare due to social discrimination.

Activists believe the active dissemination of information will generate public sensitivity, and ultimately reduce the number of death sentences meted out under Japan’s lay-judge system, which started in May 2009. Under this system, verdicts are passed by a team consisting of six citizens and three professional judges. Hosaka proposes that instead of being meted the death penalty, convicts should be handed out penalties such as life imprisonment without possibility of parole. The Penal Code allows parole to be granted to a person sentenced to life imprisonment after serving a minimum of 10 years.

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