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China executions should have more Japanese talking

Two weeks ago when China executed four Japanese nationals for drug-smuggling, the Japanese government’s response amounted to little more than a shrug. The ruling Democratic Party of Japan continually expressed “concern” over the executions, with different officials qualifying this concern as being strong “public sentiment” in Japan against the execution of people for drug-related crimes. Japan, of course, has capital punishment, albeit only for certain types of murder, so it would have been difficult to protest the executions on humanitarian grounds, which is what the British government did when one of its citizens was executed in China for the same crime several months ago. The European Union does not have capital punishment.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations expressed its own concern and criticized the DPJ for failing to prevent the executions. It’s impossible to say whether or not a stronger protest would have made a difference, but according to the JFBA the government could at least have challenged the fairness of the men’s trials. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano rejected this criticism, saying that the death sentences were carried out under the justice system of a foreign country.

It’s obviously a touchy subject, made touchier by the fact that no one is willing to discuss capital punishment openly. The mainstream media treated the story as gingerly as the government did, sketching the particulars of the case without actually getting into the larger picture of China’s war on drugs and its use of the death penalty to control undesirable social elements. They didn’t even go into the backgrounds of the condemned, though the weekly magazines did, reporting what most people had probably already figured out. The executed Japanese were gangsters or drug mules, and the drugs themselves probably came from North Korea. The first man executed, Mitsunobu Akano, previously spent 28 years in Japanese prisons.

No one except their families will likely shed any tears for these men, and as much as Japanese politicians welcome any excuse to complain about China, no one has, because that would mean talking about capital punishment and its uses. The Japanese authorities have always tried to avoid the reality of state- sanctioned killings by not informing condemned prisoners of the date of their hanging and, until recently, not even publicly announcing that an execution has taken place. The Chinese not only announce executions beforehand, but in the case of the four Japanese men, they even allowed their families a last visit, something that condemned criminals in Japan are denied.

This is not to imply that Chinese justice is fairer or more transparent, but the above-board treatment of executions in China highlights Japan’s more timid attitude toward its use of capital punishment.

On the same day that Akano was killed by lethal injection in Dalian, Liaoning Province, Japan’s Supreme Court ordered the Nagoya High Court to review its 2006 decision not to reopen the trial of Masaru Okunishi, who has been on death row since 1972 for the lethal poisoning of five women in Mie Prefecture in 1961. Okunishi, now 84, has always pleaded innocent to the charges and was acquitted after his first trial in 1964. The Nagoya High Court overturned that decision in 1969 and sentenced him to death, a decision that was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1972. Okunishi subsequently applied seven times for a retrial. Because of the Apr. 7 ruling, the case has a chance of being reopened.

Several days later, NHK’s “Close-up Gendai” reviewed the case, in particular the opinions of judges who heard it over the years. In the 1964 trial, judges found Okunishi innocent because three witnesses with possibly incriminating testimony about the time of the poisoning changed their stories in an identical fashion, thus suggesting that they may have been lead by prosecutors. However, later judges accepted the testimony, saying that it was “not inconceivable” that the witnesses changed their stories because they thought they had simply made a mistake the first time.

As in many criminal cases, Okunishi initially confessed to the killings after many hours of intense interrogation, only to retract the confession prior to his trial. Though the confession contained inconsistencies, most judges deemed it “credible.” One later said that he upheld the eventual conviction simply because he believed that no one “makes a false confession knowing that it might end in the death penalty,” discounting the notion that police might have improperly extracted it from Okunishi.

NHK interviewed some of the more than 50 judges who have heard the case, and a few admitted that they did not completely accept the confession or the witness’s statements. However, they also felt they could not acquit Okunishi because of the fear that they might be setting free a murderer. One said that he ruled against Okunishi because “80 percent” of what he heard told him he was guilty.

As the host of “Close-up Gendai” pointed out to former Judge Akira Kitani, who was in the studio, such an opinion runs counter to the idea that a suspect should receive the benefit of the doubt. Kitani agreed and said that the most important thing is that “innocent people aren’t convicted,” but he added that judges always have to “struggle” with this issue and that he “understood” how a judge could convict someone based on his own feelings.

Receiving the benefit of the doubt means even more in a capital case since an innocent person could be sent to their death, but what Kitani seemed to be saying was that judges are just as afraid, if not more so, of the opposite — that they will send a guilty man back out into the world. If this sentiment is as widespread as Kitani implies it is, then the Japanese government is correct not to protest the Chinese executions. They don’t have the moral authority.

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