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Amnesty disappointed at lack of debate in Japan on death penalty

Execution chamber (gallows) at Tokyo Detention Center
Execution chamber (gallows) at Tokyo Detention Center
LONDON — Japan is swimming against the tide of international opinion on the death penalty and needs to follow the lead of the United States and start properly debating the issue, Amnesty International said Wednesday at the launch of its annual death penalty report.

Campaigners said they were disheartened at the lack of progress in Japan at either improving the rights of those on death row or talking about the subject in the public arena.

The organization which champions human rights across the globe is disappointed that the introduction of lay judges—some of whom have had to make decisions on whether to impose the death penalty—and the release from prison of the world’s longest serving death row inmate, have not led to any improvements or fresh thinking.

Amnesty spokeswoman Chiara Sangiorgio told Kyodo News, “We still have death sentences being imposed, including by lay judges—although some have requested more transparency in the way it is applied—and saw executions being carried out, yet again, in secrecy, which means that prisoners are left wondering every day whether the guards are coming for them.

“Prisoners are still held in solitary confinement which, we can see, has led to the development of serious mental health disabilities in several cases. The government has not used its power to commute the sentences of people with those illnesses.

“The world is moving away from the death penalty with the majority of countries becoming abolitionist for the first time in 2015.”

She says the silence in Japan on the subject contrasts strongly with the United States where there is more debate and where sentences and executions are at “historic lows.”

Amnesty is calling on Japan to improve access to those on death row, as well as give more notification to prisoners and the public before executions and also explain the selection criteria.

Sangiorgio also criticized Japan’s use of extended periods of interrogation which, it is claimed, sometimes produce false confessions.

She would like lay judges to be given as much information as possible about a defendant and his or her personal circumstances before a decision is made on whether to impose the death penalty.

Three executions were carried out in Japan in 2015, the same number as in 2014. They included Sumitoshi Tsuda, the first person to be sentenced to death in a trial under the lay judges system.

The courts imposed four new death sentences. At the end of 2015, there were 143 people on death row. They included 126 people whose death sentences had been finalized, which means they could be executed at any time, according to Amnesty International.

Iwao Hakamada was sentenced to death in the 1966 murder of four members of a family in Shizuoka Prefecture, but was freed in March 2014 after a court cast doubt on the evidence used to convict him and ordered a retrial. Prosecutors are challenging the retrial.

On Hakamada, Sangiorgio said, “My colleagues understand his health is improving but he remains forever scarred from his experience on death row for over 45 years. He is having challenges communicating with the outside world.”

This year’s report also highlights the case of Masaru Okunishi who died in October aged 89. He had spent 46 years on death row, fighting to clear his name of the murder of five women. He claimed his confessions were forced and retracted them, appealing for a retrial on nine occasions.

“Until the end he was fighting to clear his name. He is a good example of why the authorities in Japan should review their criminal justice system,” Sangiorgio said.

Source: Japan Today, April 7, 2016

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