New justice minister still not sold on death penalty

by Masami Ito

In private life, new Justice Minister Seiken Sugiura is unequivocal in his condemnation of the death penalty: Under no circumstances should one person be allowed to kill another, he says.

Under the present Penal Code, however, it is the justice minister who must sign the documents approving executions.

“As the head of the Justice Ministry, I believe that I must act in accordance with the present (death penalty) system under the rule of law,” Sugiura, a former vice chairman of the Tokyo Bar Association, said in an interview Wednesday.

“There may come a time when I will be called on to sign (the execution document) . . . but I cannot generalize and declare whether or not I will actually put my name to it.”

These remarks follow his apparent flip-flop on the issue Monday night, just hours after he had assumed his new post.

During his inaugural news conference, he declared he would not sign any such documents. Yet he retracted the statement an hour later, saying he had only expressed his “personal view” on the death penalty.

“Although there are voices of protest, in reality, the death penalty exists,” Sugiura said Wednesday.

“And there is also the reality that there are people committing crimes who deserve the death (penalty). . . . But I would like to aim for a society in which (such heinous crimes) do not occur.”

The minister added, however, that there is room for discussion on alternatives to capital punishment, including the introduction of life imprisonment without parole, although he believes that many Japanese would be against the death penalty’s abolition.

Ahead of the May 2009 introduction of a lay judge system — in which ordinary Japanese nationals will pass judgment in serious cases such as murder and rape cases — Sugiura said educating the public on such matters is vital.

He also voiced hope the system will eventually be expanded to cover civil cases.

The lawyer-turned-politician recalled a case in which he defended a woman who had fatally stabbed her common-law husband. The man had been beating her for years until one day she was driven into a corner with no way out, Sugiura said.

“I argued (in court) that she was innocent, or at most (should only be accused of) inflicting injury resulting in death,” Sugiura said. But the court handed her a three-year prison term, ruling there was intent to kill because she had held the knife pointing upward.

“If I were (a lay judge), there is a strong possibility I would have declared her innocent. But the judgment all depends on the eyes of each person who views the case . . . and I believe the lay judge system, which will have (civilians) hand down such decisions, will do good.”

In respect of the government’s stalled efforts to enact a human rights protection bill, Sugiura stressed that the contents of the legislation require further discussion.

One of the criticisms an earlier version of bill faced was that it threatened to impinge upon the freedom of the press.

Sugiura said media controls should in principle be self-imposed, pointing out that if the media thronged around a person said to be involved in a case, he or she could wrongfully be seen as the culprit.

“Reporting is important, but (the media) needs to consider the human rights aspect of reporting, too,” he said.