MINISTRY SECRECY DRAWS SPOTLIGHT

Even victimized divided on death penalty

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Masaharu Harada was stunned when he found out that the man who murdered his younger brother had been executed on Dec. 27 in Nagoya.

He wondered why authorities felt they had to kill such a remorseful man.

Toshihiko Hasegawa was one of two convicts hanged in December. He was convicted of killing Harada’s brother and two other people in a murder-for-insurance scheme between 1979 and 1983. His death sentence was finalized in 1993.

Harada had petitioned the Justice Ministry on Hasegawa’s behalf to stay his execution. He believed letting Hasegawa live so he could express remorse was the only way for him to atone for his crime.

Despite the repeated entreaties, the ministry did not hesitate to single Hasegawa out for execution from dozens of death-row inmates nationwide.

At the end of December, there were 56 people on death row, according to the Justice Ministry.

The ministry did not explain why Hasegawa was chosen or why executions were carried out on that day, stating it is not permitted to discuss individual cases.

The ministry instead cited public opinion in support of the death penalty to justify its actions.

The December hangings raised questions about the rationale behind executions, including whether putting perpetrators to death really brings closure or satisfaction to the victims’ relatives, or whether public opinion should be cited to justify capital punishment.

“The execution didn’t help (ease the pain of) our family,” Harada said.

When he initially learned of Hasegawa’s arrest, he wanted his brother’s killer to be put to death.

But having received more than 100 letters of repentance from the prisoner, Harada eventually changed his mind.

“I got Hasegawa’s first letter from prison immediately after the first trial session in 1984,” he recalled.

Although Harada did not reply for a long time, Hasegawa kept writing, reiterating his remorse and sometimes enclosing pictures he had drawn in prison, including a self-portrait.

“Every letter was filled with words of apology and hope for the family’s best,” Harada explained.

After finally replying in 1993, Harada visited his brother’s killer in prison later that year.

“Many years had passed and I was calm enough to face everything (about the murder) by then,” he said, adding that it is impossible to relate how grateful Hasegawa looked upon receiving this visit.

During their 20-minute meeting, Hasegawa directly apologized for his actions.

Harada said, however, that although he had thought long and hard about what he would say at that moment, he found himself at a loss for words when it finally arrived.

They skirted the actual murder itself, talking instead about the well-being of Harada’s family and about Hasegawa’s life in prison.

Hasegawa exhausted the appeals process and his death sentence was finalized soon afterward, however, and tightened restrictions on communication between death-row inmates and the outside world limited Harada’s contact with him.

After pressuring prison officials, Harada was granted three more meetings with Hasegawa before these visits were eventually terminated in 1995.

“The prison officials rejected my repeated requests, saying I could not see him because they wanted to keep Hasegawa mentally stable,” Harada said.

Six years later, Harada attended Hasegawa’s wake.

Harada feels that despite having met Hasegawa four times, they never had time to address the murder head-on as he would have liked.

He said the execution left him feeling empty.

“Attempts to justify capital punishment by citing the feelings of the victims’ families do not sit well with me,” he said.

The flip-side of the coin

Perhaps few people who have been victimized by crime would agree with Harada, however.

Hiroshi Motomura, whose wife and 11-month-old daughter were strangled in their Yamaguchi Prefecture home by a teenager who tried to rape the wife in 1999, said Hasegawa’s execution was unavoidable.

“No matter how remorseful the convict seems, the condemned should be punished in accordance with the sentence meted out,” Motomura said.

The death sentence should not be altered by requests from victims’ families, he added.

Although prosecutors had demanded the death penalty for the youth who at age 18 killed Motomura’s family, he was sentenced to life in prison by the Yamaguchi District Court.

Motomura felt let down by this ruling.

The sentence was upheld in March by the Hiroshima High Court, which said the killer had repented and could be rehabilitated.

The case is now before the Supreme Court, where prosecutors are again demanding the death penalty. The defendant’s name has been withheld because he was a minor at the time of the crime.

During the trial, the killer’s upbringing in a tough environment and remorse over the killings took center stage, according to Motomura.

Motomura believes, however, that arguing over something no one can be sure of is pointless. He believes court rulings should be dictated solely by the Criminal Code.

When convicts express remorse, it is impossible to gauge if they are sincere, he said, adding no one really knows if it is possible to rehabilitate a criminal.

According to the Justice Ministry, more than 36 percent of people who commit crimes became repeat offenders in 2001.

“All I can tell you is that the person who killed my wife and daughter wrote to his friend saying that he won” after the district court rejected prosecutors’ demands for the death penalty and sentenced him to life, Motomura said.

Opponents of capital punishment want the public’s views examined more carefully.

Although the Justice Ministry cites a public support rate of 79.3 percent for the death penalty, based on its latest poll, as a principal reason for maintaining capital punishment, many experts say opinion polls should not be used to justify the practice.

They argue that surveys can contain leading questions and respondents may lack adequate information about the death penalty.

In the latest survey conducted by the government, in 1999, the question and response options were:

Which of the following opinions do you agree with?

I think the death penalty should be abolished under all circumstances.

I think the death penalty is necessary in some cases.

I cannot decide which to choose.

“When respondents are not sure of their stance toward the ‘judicial killing system,’ it is natural for them to go for the moderate answer — the second one,” said lawyer Mitsuhiro Wada, a member of Amnesty International Japan, the Tokyo branch of the international human rights group.

No matter what the crime was, executions violate basic human rights, he said, and by killing murderers, the state is merely replicating their actions.

Some experts also say opinion poll results reflect the public’s general lack of information regarding the death penalty.

“People have little access to information about the capital punishment system in Japan,” Wada said, noting there is little public debate on the issue.

The Justice Ministry does not announce its execution plans, and merely discloses how many hangings took place after the fact.

The government doesn’t even disclose the names of the executed, leaving nongovernmental organizations that oppose the death penalty to do so after they have conducted their own investigations.

“The government should not use the results of public opinion polls to defend the death penalty,” Wada said, adding that authorities should first disclose all information necessary to raise public awareness.

The government should only cite public opinion to defend its position after extensive public debate on the issue has taken place, Wada argued.

Information clampdown

Commenting on the ministry’s secretive policy, Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama told a news conference on Dec. 28, “It is the ministry’s practice since 1998, and I think that is the best we can do at present.

“Generally speaking, the ministry goes over all sorts of relevant documents and considers various angles before deciding whether it is appropriate to execute certain convicts,” she said, adding the justice minister then gives the final go-ahead.

Death penalty foes suspect the Justice Ministry chooses who dies at random.

Yuji Ogawara, a Tokyo-based lawyer who has been studying the issue for nearly 15 years, said, “Japan is a democratic country, which means that we, the nation, must know what the government is doing.

“It’s not that hangings are carried out by someone in some place not connected with our daily lives. Every one of us in effect gives tacit approval.”

Legislative maneuvers

Ogawara hopes public debate will be triggered by a group of 122 Diet members calling for abolition of the death penalty.

The group is led by Shizuka Kamei, former policy chief of the Liberal Democratic Party. These lawmakers are currently preparing a bill that would put an end to capital punishment in the near future.

Although he is a firm foe of the death penalty, Ogawara welcomes arguments by the proponents, believing any argument will help provoke further debate.

Ogawara believes raising public awareness is the only way to bring problems related to capital punishment to the surface. Harada and Motomura both share this view.

Harada has been lecturing across the country about the death penalty ever since he realized he did not want his brother’s killer to hang.

“I feel that every audience I face knows nothing about the death penalty,” Harada said.

His accounts of his experiences with Hasegawa fuel debate among those present, he said.

Motomura, who is convinced that the man who killed his family deserves to die, agrees people should learn more about Japan’s capital punishment system. To this end, he believes the government should disclose death-row convicts’ last words.

He believes this would help the public gain greater awareness of the consequences of crime for criminals as well as their victims.

“We must at least make society aware of the judicial killing system” in order to search for ways to prevent future crime, Motomura said.