THE DEATH PENALTY IN JAPAN

05/11/2002
Press release
en fr

Since 1993, some 43 death row inmates have been executed in Japan to the complete indifference of the international community. Two further inmates were hanged on September 18 of this year and 56 other convicted inmates are on death row awaiting their execution at any moment.

This situation is totally unacceptable in a modern democracy. It has led the Council of Europe to consider withdrawing Japan’s Observer Status, a move that they are already considering against the United States.

It is in this context that the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), committed to investigating capital punishment around the world, has sent the following mission to Japan: Sharon Hom, member of the New York bar, Professor of Law at City University of New York, and Managing Director of Human Rights in China, Etienne Jaudel, Paris Bar Association lawyer, Former Secretary General of the FIDH, and Chargé de mission of the FIDH International Board, Dr. Richard Wild, member of the British, European, and American Societies of Criminology, and Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Keele in England.

The mission, based in Tokyo, was in Japan from October 13th to the 21st.

The FIDH experts interviewed more than 55 individuals, including members of the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations, law professors, Members of Parliament, government officials, prison authorities, journalists, various non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the families of death-row inmates, members of the National Association for Victim Support, and a religious counsellor. They also met with the Ambassador of France.

The Japanese ministers concerned would not meet with the mission, but the FIDH mission did interview government officials at the Ministry of Justice, the Bureau of Corrections and the National Police Agency. The mission was not permitted to visit the death row of the Tokyo Detention Center, and was only accorded an interview with the Warden and his staff.

A full mission report will be issued shortly. Below are some preliminary observations and immediate concerns based upon our interviews and data collected:

1- The chances that the death penalty will be abolished in the near future are minimal. A group of 122 Members of Parliament will propose a bill concerning the abolition of the death penalty at the next Diet session. According to general opinion, it will not be adopted despite the fact that the bill would introduce life sentences with a minimum of 30 years before parole and the possibility of obtaining substantial compensation for victims. Neither of these measures previously existed.

Public opinion in Japan appears to favour the death penalty for the most serious crimes such as the 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway. Nine of the people convicted for this attack were sentenced to death, the most recent on October 11 of this year.

According to Ms. Moriyama, Japan’s Minister of Justice who handed down the sentence for the last two executions, capital punishment has "a strong cultural tradition" in Japan. Significantly, the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations could not agree whether to support a bill that would introduce a moratorium on the death penalty. Japanese officials did not appear to view seriously the threat of the Council of Europe’s sanction.

The only hope lies in the proposal of a two-year moratorium for executions by the same members of Parliament who are fighting to abolish capital punishment.

2- Despite considerable improvements in free legal representation as a result of Japanese Bar Association efforts, death-row inmates in Japan do not receive "fair trials" as defined in the article 10 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Under the ‘daiyo kangoku’ system, which the FIDH has previously campaigned against in 1989, suspects may be detained for questioning in police custody for up to 23 days without adequate legal representation. During this time police officials can exert unacceptable types of pressure on suspects in order to extract a confession. The confession will then form the basis of the prosecution case and effectively it cannot be withdrawn if later denied. It is note worth that in excess of 98% of arrestees are eventually convicted; therefore, chances of acquittal following extended periods of interrogation in police stations are minimal. Without legal counsel, access to families and support during the "daiyo kangoku", the likelihood for miscarriages of justice are high. This would seem to be supported by the example of Mr. Sakae Menda who spent 34 years in prison and submitted six appeals before he was finally acquitted.

The conditions under which death row inmates are held in Japan constitute a form of torture that should outrage the international community. In addition to enduring censorship, strict limitations on contact with families and the outside world, and solitary confinement, death row inmates are only notified of their execution a matter of hours before it is to take place. They live like this for years, terrified that each day could be their last and that today they will be hanged. Their families only learn of the execution of their loved ones when it has been carried out and they are notified that they can pick up his or her remains.

According to the Warden of the Tokyo Detention Center, 31 death row inmates are in this state of constant anguish. Some 12 prisoners have been there for at least 12 years and five for over 15 years.

We understand that the penitentiary administration pays "special attention" to the mental state of its death row inmates under such constant stress. In order to prevent suicide attempts, these prisoners are kept in individual cells whose lights are permanently on, if dimmed, and some are under constant "surveillance" by video cameras. They spend 23½ hours a day in complete solitude, as they are not allowed to communicate to each another. Their only contact with the outside world is visits with members of their family.

No independent witness or Member of Parliament has ever been allowed to visit death row inmates, and despite repeated requests, the FIDH mission was also denied a meeting. The President of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly publicly opposed such refusals. Independent scrutiny is critical in ensuring that the treatment of death row inmates is humane and complies with international human rights
standards.

The FIDH has made an appeal to international organizations and the international community to put an end to this "cruel, inhuman and
degrading treatment" prohibited by article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

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