Kamei seeks to undermine death penalty

Lawmaker one of few to openly oppose capital punishment amid 80% public support for hangings

by Setsuko Kamiya

Japanese politicians are generally not very vocal when it comes to their views on capital punishment, mainly because a large majority of the public supports the death penalty.

But among those who clearly express their positions on the way the state punishes people found guilty of the gravest crimes, Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) lawmaker Shizuka Kamei stands out. Not only does he strongly oppose capital punishment, he is proud of the fact that he does.

“Without a doubt, all lives are precious, and they should be respected. That’s why the state works to improve health care, maintain order and makes efforts so that murders don’t occur in society, right?” says Kamei, 71, a former prominent Liberal Democratic Party member.

“Then how can that same state murder a person? That is totally inconsistent.”

Kamei leads a nonpartisan group of 72 Diet members opposed to capital punishment who are about to submit a bill to the Diet that would introduce the penalty of life in prison without parole.

The bill also stipulates that if a court is to hand down a death sentence, it must be a unanimous decision, as opposed to the current majority vote system.

The move comes at a time when the public is only a year away from starting to take part in criminal courts to try serious crimes, as well as the recent rise in the number of executions.

Starting May 21, 2009, citizens will embark on a new challenge of participating in the decision-making process on the benches of criminal trials, joining some 80 countries that have their own lay-participation judicial systems.

Under the “saibanin” (lay judge) system, serious crimes will be tried before a panel of judges consisting of six randomly chosen voters and three professional judges in district courts across the country.

Together, the nine will not only determine the facts based on evidence presented in court, but will also pass down a sentence if they find the accused guilty.

As the cases subject to be tried by the new system include capital crimes, there may come a day when the citizen judges will decide to sentence the accused to death. Under current law, such decisions will be based on a majority vote.

Proponents expect public participation in criminal trials to open up court proceedings and enhance the level of democracy in Japanese society, but Kamei believes having to hand down a death sentence is too big a burden to place on the new lay judges.

“The public will sit as lay judges not according to their will, and some people may have to face situations where, even though they believed the accused was not guilty, they (as part of the panel of judges) have to accept handing down the death penalty just because that was the majority decision. And these people will have to live with that for the rest of their lives,” said Kamei, who was a National Police Agency bureaucrat before he became a Diet member.

While their ultimate goal is to abolish capital punishment, Kamei and his group of lawmakers are taking a realistic approach and are trying to set the bar higher for executions to be handed down.

According to their bill as it now reads, a death sentence would only be handed down if all nine members of a panel are in agreement on the penalty.

But if there is only a majority opinion, the penalty would automatically become life imprisonment without parole, a new type of sentence that would be established by the same bill.

Currently, life in prison comes with parole, and some who receive this sentence can be released, technically, in as early as 10 years.

“Because the public supports the death penalty, it’s not easy to abolish it right now. But many politicians in the LDP I’ve talked to actually support life imprisonment without parole, so I’m pretty optimistic that this bill will pass,” said Kamei, who left the ruling party in 2005 because he was against Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s plan to privatize the postal system.

“This will be a landmark in abolishing capital punishment,” he said.

Kamei is highly critical of Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama for the unusual speed with which he has been ordering executions. In the last four months, he has signed execution orders three times and sent a total of 10 death row inmates to the gallows.

Hatoyama is the first justice minister to officially announce the names of those executed along with their offenses, breaking with the ministry’s long tradition of secrecy.

But Kamei criticizes the release of information as being used as “a warning to others.”

“If information about those executed were to be provided to the public, I think they also have to let them know what sort of days they were spending behind bars, whether they regret their offenses, or if they were praying for the victims. Those things should also be revealed to let the public think for themselves if they can stand the fact that the state is killing a person,” he said.

A 2004 government opinion poll showed that 81.4 percent of respondents supported the death penalty, on the grounds that only capital punishment can provide true closure to the families of the victims, and that executions act as a deterrent to future crimes. Only 6 percent of the respondents were against capital punishment.

But Kamei believes that the fact the death penalty exists creates a vicious circle in which the families of the victims seek capital punishment only because such a penalty exists.

“Even in the heart of a vicious criminal, there exists an evil side and a merciful side. I believe that the state must make the effort to get the merciful heart out of him, and rehabilitate that,” Kamei said. “I think that the families of the victims could come to terms with such efforts.”