TIME IS RIPE

Diet group against death penalty to make its move

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The time has arrived for a group of 122 lawmakers seeking to abolish the death penalty to make their move and put their case before the Diet.

Amid mounting international pressure, the nonpartisan group is preparing a bill to drop capital punishment from the Criminal Code.

The group hopes to have the bill ready before the next ordinary Diet session convenes in January. It would be the first such move since 1956, when Upper House members made a similar proposal in vain.

“We have urged the Justice Ministry many times to halt executions and raised the issue 15 times in the Diet, but nothing has changed,” said Nobuto Hosaka, a Social Democratic Party lawmaker and secretary general of the nonpartisan lawmaker group.

According to the group, the ministry has stuck to its guns, using the rationale that it is legally bound to execute condemned killers.

The life sentence

The group is currently discussing two draft bills from which they hope to craft legislation to submit to the Diet.

One is to revise the Criminal Code to replace the death penalty with a life sentence either without parole or without the possibility of parole until after 30 years behind bars.

Because convicts serving life prison terms can currently be subject to parole after 10 years, people fear that if capital punishment is abolished, criminals who have committed heinous crimes might be allowed back on the streets in that time frame.

According to the Justice Ministry, convicts paroled in 1999 after serving a life sentence had spent an average of about 21 years behind bars, compared with about 16 years for 1977 parolees.

Even though the data show prison terms in recent years have gotten longer, it is still widely acknowledged that a life term differs little from a limited prison term. Thus the idea of a life sentence without parole.

However, some members in the Diet group say that if such a term is introduced, it could be crueler than hanging because it removes any hope prisoners may have of regaining their freedom.

It is extremely rare for death-row inmates to obtain a reduced sentence or a pardon; the last time this occurred was in 1975.

Thus, amendments to the Amnesty Law as well as other laws are also being considered to give convicts an opportunity to apply for leniency. In the draft bill, the Diet members are mulling 20 years as the minimum prison term before a convict can apply for leniency.

If it is granted, then even an extended life sentence would include the current life term’s parole eligibility after 10 years, effectively increasing the minimum time behind bars to 30 years for criminals.

Sparking debate

The other draft bill under consideration is proposed by Toshiko Hamayotsu, deputy head of the Diet group and a New Komeito member.

It seeks similar but more moderate steps.

Hamayotsu sees the immediate abolishment of the death penalty as facing huge opposition in the Diet. She is suggesting that the group first seek to spark serious public debate on the issue.

While retaining capital punishment in the Criminal Code, Hamayotsu’s plan aims to create a new penalty that does not allow parole unless a criminal serves either 20 or 30 years.

According to Hamayotsu, a lawyer before entering politics, the huge disparity between the severity of the death sentence and the current life sentence poses a dilemma for judges.

The proposed life sentence without parole would lessen the gap, she said, noting that an additional clause institutionalizing a moratorium on executions for two years would be included. During this period, the nation could work toward reaching a conclusion on whether to keep capital punishment on the books, she said.

Moving forward with care

The Diet group is trying to ready the bill as soon as possible, but they are also well aware they have to advance the argument with the greatest care. If the bill is scrapped, it would probably take decades to get the momentum rolling again.

At the same time, the group also plans to submit a bill to provide comprehensive support for people victimized by crime and their families, believing Japan has long lacked such a system.

With the two bills, the group aims to create a system whereby both death-row inmates’ and crime victims’ rights are protected.

“We are trying to figure out what is best and what is most convincing for as many people as possible,” Hosaka of the Diet group said.

According to the Council of Europe, an international body created in 1949 to unite Europe around shared principles, including respect for human rights, 111 countries worldwide have abolished or have a de facto moratorium on capital punishment. As of January, 84 nations still had capital punishment.

In 1991, a U.N. convention took effect aimed at abolishing capital punishment.

Japan and the United States are now the only members of the Group of Eight that still carry out executions.

The two countries have observer status at the Council of Europe, but now that is at stake.

The 43 member countries of the European body adopted a resolution in June 2001 to urge Japan and the U.S. to abolish or at least halt executions.

According to the resolution, if no significant progress is made by January each could lose their status.

A movement in South Korea threatens to get the jump on Japan. A bill to abolish capital punishment was brought to its legislature by 155 lawmakers last October.

South Korean lawmaker Chyung Dai Chul, who took the lead in championing the bill, said in May at a seminar in Tokyo he is confident it will be passed because supporters account for a majority in the 273-member legislature.

No execution has been carried out in South Korea since 1998, the year Kim Dae Jung became president.

The story of Kim, who as a democracy advocate in the 1970s was abducted from a Tokyo hotel by South Korean agents, tried in his country and sentenced to death for sedition, and later freed to take up exile in the United States, has added public momentum to the drive to scrap capital punishment.

Business as usual

Despite the global trend, Japan’s judicial authorities have not budged.

“In Japan, there is an expression of apology ‘shinde wabiru’ (to atone for one’s crime by killing oneself), which I think shows our own view toward crimes,” Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama said at the May Tokyo conference, arguing that the divergent views on capital punishment in Japan and Europe stem from cultural differences.

Most Japanese support the death penalty, Moriyama stressed, citing public opinion polls conducted by the government.

However, Chyung, who said he is willing to devote himself to support the campaign to abolish capital punishment in Japan, believes public opinion may change if people are better informed.

He is encouraging Japanese lawmakers to convince the public that the death penalty is a barbaric form of punishment, something a modern civilized nation should not condone.

Forging public opinion

European delegates who visited Japan for a Tokyo conference earlier this year said the death penalty is a violation of the basic human right to life.

Nevertheless, European opponents of capital punishment said they observe little public debate on the issue in Japan, citing this is an example of where politicians must lead — and not follow — public opinion.

Since its foundation in 1994, the Diet group opposed to capital punishment has primarily focused on either urging the Justice Ministry to halt executions or demanding that it disclose information regarding capital punishment, such as the names of those who are hanged and the execution procedures.

Believing the time is ripe to move on, Hosaka said the group now aims to raise public awareness on the issue while continuing to discuss it with other parties, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, experts who specialize in the penal system, and nongovernmental organizations.

Group members are also scheduled to meet their counterparts in a visit to South Korea in November.

Hosaka boasts of the increasing number of members in the Diet group, believing they will soon total 200.

“We must continue debating and studying the issue to strengthen our leverage to realize an end to the death penalty.”