|Gallows trap door at an execution chamber at the Tokyo Detention Center|
Japan's biggest lawyers' group on Friday called for the abolition of the death penalty, a controversial move in country where a large majority of the public supports executing criminals convicted of the most serious offences.
Human rights advocates have long denounced Japan's capital punishment system, under which prisoners are told without warning they will be hanged within hours, but there has been little momentum for change.
Some 80 percent of the public and the core of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling party favor capital punishment. Japan and the United States are the only two members of the Group of Seven advanced economies to practice it.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations issued a declaration calling for the abolishment of the death penalty by 2020, citing the possibility of wrongful convictions and international trends against capital punishment. It also said there was little evidence that it deterred crime.
"There's a serious risk of false charges under Japan's criminal justice system, which has fatal flaws in the disclosure of evidence and long periods of detainment and interrogation," the statement said.
The death penalty is currently used for crimes including murder, coups and arson or rape that causes death.
The move by the lawyers' group was expected to be opposed by a politically vocal victims' rights group, which has consistently urged that the death penalty be maintained.
"When a life is taken by crime, that life will never return," the group said on its homepage. "For the dead person's loved ones to want heavy punishment is only natural."
The danger, said Shizuka Kamei, a former Cabinet member who was a police official for decades before entering politics, was that an innocent person may end up condemned.
"Depriving an innocent, defenseless person of their life is a heinous killing on the part of the nation," Kamei, head of an anti-death penalty lawmakers group, said during a news conference on Thursday.
Proponents of the death penalty say it deters crime, but activists note that nearly 99 percent of criminal trials in Japan end with convictions and reliance on confessions is high. Suspects are not always guaranteed the presence of a lawyer.
There were 127 people on death row at several prisons around Japan at the end of 2015.
Source: Reuters, October 7, 2016
In historic move, Japan's legal community takes stand against death penalty
|Gallows at Tokyo Detention Center|
Japanese lawyers positioned themselves against the death penalty on Friday, as the Japan Federation of Bar Associations called for abolition of a punishment that critics say is uniquely cruel and vengeful.
JFBA members approved a declaration that seeks to abolish the death penalty by 2020 and to replace it with life imprisonment, a change that will bring Japan into line with most other developed nations.
The JFBA represents around 37,600 Japanese lawyers and hundreds of foreign legal professionals. In the past it has expressed unease over the death penalty but has stopped short of taking a stand against it.
Friday's move will set the legal profession against the government, which has executed 16 people since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in 2012.
In a joint statement, the European Union and the Norwegian, Icelandic and Swiss embassies called the JFBA's decision "timely and welcome."
"We hope that an open, public debate on this issue in Japan will follow, allowing the people of Japan to weigh for themselves the evidence from a growing number of countries . . . that an abolition of death penalty can actually strengthen the capacity of judicial systems to effectively deliver justice and, at the same time, prevent irreversible miscarriages of justice," they said.
The move was welcomed by activists, who say the death penalty is error-prone and leaves prisoners with no opportunity for rehabilitation.
"Capital punishment in all cases should be abolished because the inherent dignity of the person cannot be squared with the death penalty, a form of punishment unique in its cruelty and finality," Kanae Doi of the Tokyo branch of Human Rights Watch said Friday.
"The death penalty is widely rejected by rights-respecting democracies around the world and I see no reason why Japan cannot follow the stream. I welcome the JFBA restarting the discussion in this direction."
EU governments have been lobbying hard for Japan to end executions. British, French and Italian diplomats press the case regularly in their meetings with lawyers, legislators and journalists.
Some European diplomats privately express frustration that abolition is not even a subject of public debate in Japan.
The French Embassy in Tokyo said Friday it hopes that discussion will now emerge.
"We have been calling on Japan to introduce a moratorium for many years," the embassy said in a statement. "In this respect, we salute the declaration of the JFBA. The death penalty is a moral issue, but it is also necessary to question its usefulness."
Japan is 1 of only 2 Group of 7 nations that retain the death penalty.
In the U.S., figures show the trend is slowing. Executions in the U.S. this year are on track to be the lowest in 25 years, and the trend is matched by a sharp decline in the number of death sentences passed by American courts.
Japan's death row prisoners are usually kept in solitary confinement and are required to stay silent, conditions that critics call both inhumane and excessively punitive.
Doubts about the reliability of convictions have been fueled by cases such as that of Iwao Hakamada. He was sentenced to death in 1968 in a case based on evidence apparently fabricated by police.
Hakamada was freed in 2014 but now lives with severe mental impairments after more than 4 decades on death row.
In 2015 Japan executed 3 prisoners. That year, the case of 89-year-old Masaru Okunishi also drew attention. He died in the hospital after 46 years on death row, fighting to clear his name in the murders of 5 women. He said his confessions were forced and sought a retrial on 9 occasions.
Source: The Japan Times, October 7, 2016
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