Death row: limbo of not knowing when
Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2007
By SETSUKO KAMIYA
Japan is among 69 nations, including the United States, that have the death penalty.There are 128 countries, including European Union members, that have either abolished capital punishment, allow it only under special circumstances or have not carried it out in at least a decade. (In the U.S., 12 states do not have the death penalty.)
Despite international and domestic pressure to end executions, they are on the rise here.
Below are some facts about Japan's death penalty:
Who can be put to death?
Murderers, as well as arsonists and robbers whose actions result in death, are subject to capital punishment. Kidnappers and hijackers who kill hostages also face the death penalty.
How many death-row inmates are there in Japan?
For the first time since 1946, the number is at 100, including five women. There were just 51 in 1997.
In recent years, prosecutors and courts have adopted a "get tough" policy on crime, resulting in a surge in death sentences, according to Maiko Tagusari, a lawyer and human rights activist.
Tagusari said this trend reflects the overall sense of a decline in public safety, fed by sensationalistic media reports on heinous crimes, as well as calls from relatives of crime victims for harsher penalties.
Statistics, however, show that murders have declined slightly over the past few years. In 2005, there were 1,392 murder cases, down 1.9 percent from the year before, according to the 2006 white paper on crime.
How is the death penalty carried out, and where do executions take place?
Executions are carried out by hanging. Seven detention centers are equipped with gallows; in Sapporo, Sendai, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Hiroshima and Fukuoka.
What are the living conditions of death-row convicts?
Inmates are kept in solitary confinement in tatami mat cells about 8 sq. meters in size. The cells have a toilet and sink. Inmates are also kept in isolation during exercise periods and eat their meals alone.
Virtually the only people who may visit or correspond with an inmate are attorneys and relatives. Even an inmate's reading material is strictly controlled.
However, a legal revision to take effect by June 7 is expected to ease these tight restrictions on communications and reading material.
How long is an inmate usually on death row?
Once finalized, by law a death sentence must be carried out within six months. However, executions are not carried out while an inmate is seeking retrial, an accused accomplice is still on trial, or if the inmate is mentally incompetent or pregnant.
On average, it takes seven years and five months for a death sentence to be carried out, according to the Justice Ministry. Thus the September 2004 execution of Mamoru Takuma, who fatally stabbed eight children and wounded 15 others at an Osaka elementary school, was unusual in that he was hanged only a year after his case was finalized. He had refused to appeal.
There are also inmates who have been on death row for decades, pleading their innocence and demanding retrials. The process is notoriously slow, and retrials are a rarity. Over the past 30 years, only four have been granted a retrial and subsequently acquitted.
Observers believed Masaru Okunishi, 80, who has been on death row since 1972, was set to be the fifth to go free when the Nagoya High Court granted him a retrial in April 2005. However, the court revoked its decision last December. Okunishi's supporters filed a special appeal against the decision with the Supreme Court.
While awaiting the long retrial process, a few inmates have died of illness; others have reportedly developed mental problems.
Are inmates hanged immediately after the justice minister issues an execution order?
The Criminal Procedure Law states that an execution must be carried out within five days after the justice minister signs the order. But the process is confidential; a convict only finds out on the day of the hanging.
By law, executions may not be carried out on holidays, New Year's Eve, New Year's Day and Jan. 2. This restriction will be extended to weekends, national holidays and the period between Dec. 29 and Jan. 3 when the law is revised.
Observers note that hangings often take place when the Diet is in recess, presumably to avoid stirring up debate among lawmakers. The last executions, of four inmates, were carried out Dec. 25, shortly after an extraordinary Diet session ended Dec. 19.
The condemned are only notified on the morning of their execution. In general, relatives are only informed afterward, according to the Justice Ministry.
Once executed, the ministry issues a press release, although the names and execution site are not disclosed. The media, however, find out from the next of kin, lawyers, human rights groups or from inside sources.
The extreme secrecy is rare among nations where executions are legal, according to Amnesty International.
Why is information on capital punishment so secret?
The Justice Ministry explains that there are no regulations that oblige it to provide such information in advance to inmates. The ministry claims death-row inmates and their kin will suffer less emotional distress if they are kept in the dark.
However, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, Amnesty International and other international groups criticize the lack of advance notice as a clear human rights violation, in which the inmate is in a constant state of mental torture, fearing every knock at the cell door.
Where does the public stand on the death penalty?
In a 2004 survey conducted by the Cabinet Office, only 6 percent of the respondents opposed capital punishment, while 81.4 percent agreed the death penalty is appropriate in certain cases.
Many supporters believe heinous crimes "should be compensated by life" and abolishing the death penalty would increase those crimes, while the pain of the families, meanwhile, would not be healed.
Opponents argue that strong support for the death penalty is a reflection of the government's efforts to conceal information from the public and to deprive citizens of the opportunity for serious debate on the system.
Some lawyers are suing the government for turning down their request to disclose information on the death chambers.
How are politicians reacting to the death penalty?
In the past decade, all but one politician who served as justice minister signed execution papers at least once during their term.
The one who didn't, Seiken Sugiura, a member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, served as justice minister between October 2005 and last September.
When he took the post, Sugiura said he would refuse to sign the order because it was against his faith. He later withdrew his remarks, saying his personal views and official position were different.