Hiraoka urges ‘active’ debate on executions


Staff Writer

Japanese should think about how developed nations view their country’s policy on executions, Justice Minister Hideo Hiraoka said in a recent interview.

“I feel Japanese citizens do not fully understand how we are viewed by developed countries. I want all of us to be more interested in how we are viewed,” the new minister told a group of journalists at his office in Tokyo last week.

Hiraoka refused to confirm he would sign off on executions.

“I will be prudent in signing off on executions because that is an act of taking people’s lives,” Hiraoka said. “Some people say not signing off executions is sabotaging the duty of the justice minister, but the minister also has the duty to consider how to handle the death sentence amid various international opinions on the subject.”

In recent years, abolishing capital punishment has become something of a global trend. The number of countries that carried out executions peaked at 41 in 1995 before plunging to 19 in 2009 and bouncing up to 23 in 2010, according to Amnesty International’s website.

Several U.S. states carried out executions last year, but none of the European countries except Belarus did, Amnesty said.

Japan carried out two executions in 2010, but the number is hardly constant. In some years no criminals are executed, in others more than 10 end up in the gallows. It all depends on whether the justice minister sees a need for executions or whether a life sentence is a viable option.

Hiraoka said he wants the public to discuss the subject of death sentences actively. He also wants to set up a ministry panel that will study and discuss the subject more frequently, he said. At present, a panel of ministry officials and legal experts convenes occasionally for talks on the issue.

Regarding plans to sign the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, Hiraoka said the most important thing is to clarify the conditions under which Japan will refuse to return abducted children.

“We will study past court rulings and other things carefully and try not to make Japanese nationals worried,” he said.

The Hague convention is an international law that has been signed by more than 80 nations. Under its rules, one country must help return abducted children to the country from which they were abducted.

Japan has decided to sign the convention, but some parents who have taken their children without the consent of their former foreign partners are urging the foreign and justice ministries to make sure they do not have to give up their children in cases where spouses were abusive or violent.

Hiraoka said he wants to submit a bill to the Diet next year in connection with preparations to sign the convention.

As for videotaping interrogations by police and prosecutors, Hiraoka said every part of the process should be transparent to minimize the chance of false conviction.

The issue of forced confessions has been drawing increasing attention in the wake of new DNA tests that have revealed a series of wrongful convictions in high-profile murder cases.

Police and prosecutors oppose videotaping the complete process because they say it will undermine their ability to acquire confessions.

On the subject of allowing married couples to have different surnames, Hiraoka avoided taking a position and only said that the duty of his ministry is to compromise with lawmakers.