Three death-row inmates were hanged Thursday morning, the first executions Justice Minister Okiharu Yasuoka has approved since taking office in the Aug. 1 Cabinet reshuffle.
“I just performed my duty as justice minister,” Yasuoka told a news conference. “The current political situation is irrelevant,” he added, referring to Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s Sept. 1 resignation announcement and the launch Wednesday of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s presidential election campaign.
Given that a new prime minister will be appointed after the LDP election, it is uncertain how long Yasuoka will remain in his post and whether these will turn out to be his only executions.
“Yasuoka did it during the only time he could,” protested Amnesty International Japan Secretary General Makoto Teranaka. “It is dangerous that the Justice Ministry is ordering more and more executions and shortening the interval between when the death sentences are finalized and the executions.”
Another group, The Forum 90 Demanding Ratification of International Treaty to Abolish Death Penalty, based in Tokyo, released a statement saying, “In office only about a month, Yasuoka could not have had time to scrutinize the cases of the three inmates, which means he neglected his duty as the justice minister.”
Yasuoka, an ex-judge and lawyer who was also justice minister from 2000 to 2001 in former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s Cabinet, is a staunch death penalty advocate. Just after taking office last month, he said capital punishment should continue to exist because “we should respect people’s sentiment that (the most heinous crimes) have to be compensated for only by death.”
2008 has now seen 13 executions, compared with nine in 2007 and four in 2006.
The number of executions depends on who is in the post of justice minister. Yasuoka’s predecessor, Kunio Hatoyama, signed off on 13 executions during his 12 months in the post, the most hangings by a single justice minister since at least 1993. On the other hand, Seiken Sugiura, who was in the post from October 2005 to September 2006, ordered none because of his devout Buddhist beliefs.
Yasuoka disclosed the names of the executed, a practice Hatoyama started.
Yoshiyuki Mantani, 68, was convicted of killing one woman, attempting to kill a second woman and robbing and wounding a third woman in Osaka from August 1987 to January 1988. He had been released from prison on April 30, 1987, after serving an earlier sentence for murder and robbery. His death sentence was finalized in December 2001.
Mineteru Yamamoto, 68, was convicted of murdering and robbing his cousin and the cousin’s wife in July 2004 in Kobe because he wanted gambling money. He also conspired with another to commit three thefts in 2003. His sentence was finalized in April 2006.
Isamu Hirano, 61, was convicted of killing and robbing a ranch owner for whom he was working and the owner’s wife in Tochigi Prefecture in December 1994. Hirano also torched the owner’s house after the murder. His sentence was finalized in October 2006.
Amnesty’s Teranaka is particularly alarmed by Yamamoto’s case as he was hanged so soon after the crimes were committed. Teranaka is concerned that court procedures have been accelerated as prosecutors and defense attorneys narrow the focus of dispute to minimize the time lay judges must serve. The lay judge system, in which ordinary citizens will sit on a panel of judges, will debut in May.
“I am concerned that death sentences are determined too smoothly and mechanically,” Teranaka said.
Japan is “undoubtedly the only developed country whose execution orders are increasing,” he added. China orders more executions, but the number is falling dramatically, he said.