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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Japan: 7 death row Aum cult members moved from Tokyo detention center

Tokyo Detention Center
TOKYO -The Justice Ministry began transferring seven of 13 former Aum Shinrikyo cult members on death row from the Tokyo detention center to other facilities across the country, government sources said Wednesday, likely moving them one step closer to execution.

With the Aum-related trials wrapping up in January, the ministry is considering when they should be hanged for the series of crimes they committed that left 29 people dead. While the transfer was completed for six death row inmates Wednesday, the seventh person is set to arrive on Thursday.

All 13 inmates sentenced to death for crimes committed while members of the doomsday cult had been housed in the Tokyo detention facility, including Aum founder Shoko Asahara, 63, who masterminded the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 13 people and left over 6,000 people ill.

Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, remains at the Tokyo detention center, the sources said.

The seven death row inmates who were transferred are Tomomasa Nakagawa, 55, Tomomitsu Niimi, 54, Yasuo Hayashi, 60, Kiyohide Hayakawa, 68, Yoshihiro Inoue, 48, Masato Yokoyama, 54, and Kazuaki Okazaki, 57. Hayashi and Okazaki are currently known as Koike and Miyamae as they have changed their surnames.

There are execution facilities in Sapporo, Sendai, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukuoka.

Of the seven death row inmates, two each were sent to either Nagoya or Osaka while one arrived in Sendai and another in Hiroshima. The seventh person is set to arrive at the Fukuoka detention center on Thursday.

It is unclear who went to which facility, except for Inoue who was sent to Osaka. Inoue met with his mother after the transfer and she said Inoue looked "shaken."

Inoue, who was involved in 10 Aum-related crimes including the subway attack, filed Wednesday at the Tokyo High Court for a retrial.

Japan has long tended to avoid executing death-row inmates while their retrial pleas were pending, but then Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda said last year such a plea does not impede execution.

Around 190 people with ties to the cult were indicted. In addition to the 13 sentenced to death, six others were given life sentences.

The 13 inmates were involved in the Tokyo subway attack; the 1989 murders of Tsutsumi Sakamoto, an anti-Aum lawyer, his wife and son; and another sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1994.

Toxicologist Anthony Tu, 87, who is investigating the Aum incidents, visited Nakagawa at the Tokyo detention center on Tuesday. Nakagawa told him that he could be transferred and that it could be their last meeting, according to Tu.

Families of the victims of the Aum attack expressed their emotions ahead of the inmates' likely executions.

Minoru Kariya, 58, who lost his father in the 1995 notary clerk abduction and confinement case, welcomed the ministry's move. "It has been frustrating that the taxes the victims and their families have paid are used to keep the inmates alive."

The first batch of trials ended when the ruling on former senior Aum member Seiichi Endo, 57, was finalized in December 2011. But court actions resumed when three former Aum followers, who had been on the run for nearly 20 years, were arrested in 2012.

The series of trials finally came to a close in January after the Supreme Court upheld a high court life sentence for Katsuya Takahashi, 59, one of the three who had been on the run.

In Japan, it is customary not to hang death row inmates until the sentences of their accomplices are finalized.

Source: Japan Today, March 15, 2018


Is the Japanese government executing members of the Aum cult for convenience?


Gallows at Tokyo Detention Center
When is the best time to execute someone? Regrettably, this could very well be the question that the Japanese government is pondering at the moment.

In 2019, the country will have a new emperor for the first time in three decades, while the following year’s Tokyo Olympics herald a return of the Summer Games to Japan after a gap of more than 50 years.

The eyes of the world will turn eastward and the country’s mood is, understandably, a celebratory one.

This could be the very reason that Japan’s government will most likely carry out several executions in the coming months. By getting these “negative stories” out of the way now, future celebrations need not be overshadowed – or so the thinking goes.

Executions in Japan are cloaked in secrecy so it is impossible to predict exactly when any of the 123 death row inmates will be sent to the gallows.

Among those most at risk are 13 members of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo (Aum). They were convicted for their roles in the abhorrent 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway and other crimes. The attack left 13 people dead and thousands more suffering the effects of the nerve gas.

Choosing some of the Aum 13 for execution would fit a well-established pattern. Previous Ministers of Justice often emphasized the cruel nature and self-centred motivation of the crimes committed.

Two decades on, the subway attack remains vividly etched into the memory of many given its unprecedented scale. Some victims’ families have expressed outrage they have not received genuine apologies from the perpetrators.

These families deserve for those responsible for the attack to be brought to justice and punished for the crimes. But the death penalty has no place in any judicial system, even in this instance. It is the ultimate denial of human rights -- the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice.

It is unlikely to relieve the suffering of the families and it may prevent them from ever receiving the apologies they seek. 

While sentences for the 13 have been finalized for years, so far no one has been executed. Japanese law bans the execution of prisoners until the cases of all co-defendants are finalized. Until 2012, two Aum members, Katsuya Takahashi and Naoko Kikuchi, spent 17 years on the run, perhaps in an effort to spare their fellow accused.

With the Supreme Court confirming the acquittal of Kikuchi in December last year and upholding the life sentence against Takahashi in January this year, the other Aum’s 13 could be executed at any time. The Minister of Justice may sign their death warrants despite the fact that several are in the midst of pursuing a retrial.

Appealing against your conviction no longer guarantees a stay of execution in Japan. Of the four people hanged in 2017, three were in the process of seeking a retrial.

This is just one of several flagrant breaches of international law and standards on the use of the death penalty in the country.

No warning


Last prayers: A golden Buddha statue where handcuffed convicts are blindfolded and led to their death.
Prisoners are typically only given a few hours’ notice before execution, but some may be given no warning at all. 

Inmates are kept in isolation suffering the anguish of never knowing when they are going to be put to death – sometimes for decades.

Their families are usually informed only after the execution has taken place. 

There is no way to know who could be next. Contact with the outside world is limited to infrequent and supervised visits from family, lawyers or other approved visitors.

Japan continues to sentence to death and execute prisoners with mental and intellectual disabilities, which is a clear violation of international law and standards.

Six psychiatrists hired by the lawyers for the Amu cult guru, Matsumoto, raised concerns about the deterioration of his mental health caused by detention on death row. 

According to one of Chizuo Matsumoto’s daughters, for the past ten years no external visitors, including his family and lawyers, have been able to meet him which makes it even harder to understand his current mental state.

Opposing the death penalty does not mean that those who are responsible for violent acts, such as the perpetrators of the subway attack, should not be held to account. It means asking governments to focus resources on long-term preventive measures that would effectively tackle the issue at its roots.

Silently burying the 13 will not make our society safer. It doesn’t help address what caused such a cult to foster in Japanese society or why members were drawn to a charismatic guru with dangerous ideas.

The mark of a civilized society is recognizing the rights of every individual, even those responsible for heinous crimes.

Organizers of the Tokyo Games want to “advance measures that will leave lasting legacies for future generations”. It is time for the Japanese people to reconsider if the country wants to leave a legacy of brutality for the next generation.

State-sanctioned killing is cruel and inhuman regardless, but for the executions to happen now, ahead of next year when the world will have its eyes on Japan would demonstrate an unprecedented level of cynicism and a chilling disregard for human life.

Source: Amnesty International, Hiroka Shoji, March 15, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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