The three executions Justice Minister Toshio Ogawa approved March 29 ended a 20-month spell during which no death-row inmates were hanged.
Ogawa, who assumed his post in January, has declared he will not hesitate to issue more death warrants, raising the prospect that more hangings are due on his watch. His stance presents a stark contrast to that of his two predecessors, who were reluctant to sign off on executions.
“It is the people who decide what type of penalty should be meted out for each crime,” Ogawa told the press on the morning the three death-row prisoners were hanged.
The inmates included Yasuaki Uwabe, 48, who was convicted of killing five people and injuring 10 others in a 1999 rampage at a train station in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
“The death penalty has been supported in lay judge trials,” Ogawa said, referring to the new system that makes use of lay and professional judges.
While the death sentence is the heaviest punishment that can be handed down in such trials, which began in May 2009, the justice minister still has sole responsibility for approving executions and deciding when they will be carried out.
At the news conference on the day of the hangings, Ogawa repeated that “issuing an execution order is the duty of a justice minister,” and stressed that capital punishment is based on “a judgment made by the nation.” He had approved the three men’s death warrants two days earlier.
Lay judge trials have resulted in death sentences on more than 10 occasions, and earlier in March, an appellate court supported a death sentence handed down by a lay judge trial.
Referring to such rulings, prosecutor-turned-lawyer Masaru Wakasa said that each case represents “the conclusion that ordinary citizens drew after going through the agony (of judging whether a person should live or die).”
A justice minister “must give weight to the fact that death penalty rulings have been issued by lay judge panels,” Wakasa said.
With more than 130 inmates on death row — a record high — officials at the Justice Ministry who support executions praise Ogawa’s determination to follow through with hangings.
“We have finally returned to the way it should be, carrying out executions in line with our professional responsibilities,” one of Ogawa’s aides said.
Some officials at the Justice Ministry are even speculating the three hangings may herald a return to the days of former Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama, who sent 13 death-row inmates to the gallows during his 11-month stint.
Ogawa’s predecessors, however, took a completely different stance on the death sentence. In an interview last August, then Justice Minister Satsuki Eda expressed reservations about authorizing executions at a time when the nation was mourning the loss of nearly 19,000 people in the March 2011 quake and tsunami.
“With a large number of people having died in the calamity, it is time for the nation to calmly consider the issue of capital punishment,” he said.
Eda said that he believed the death penalty “contained various flaws” when he became justice minister that January. He later retracted the remark, however.
Hideo Hiraoka, Ogawa’s immediate predecessor, was also reluctant to use executions.
“A national debate is necessary about whether to keep or abolish” the death penalty, Hiraoka said.
Ogawa, however, has shown no such reservations since he assumed the post in a Jan. 13 Cabinet reshuffle.
He indicated that executions were in the offing when he told a Diet session that the death penalty “should be implemented in line with the justice minister’s professional responsibility. I will issue orders.”
The executions dismayed Hideki Wakabayashi, executive director of Amnesty International Japan, especially as there were no hangings during 2011 — the first such occurrence in 19 years.
“Last year, the world was happy,” Wakabayashi said, referring to the absence of executions.
An official at another human rights group voiced a sense of urgency in light of the March 29 hangings, saying, “We have to do whatever we can to make this round of executions the last.”
In early March, Ogawa also decided to scrap an internal study group on the death penalty within the Justice Ministry.
The group had been set up by former Justice Minister Keiko Chiba after she authorized the hangings of two inmates in July 2010, the first executions under the Democratic Party of Japan’s administration.
Since its inaugural meeting in August, the group has convened on 10 other occasions to solicit the views of academics, lawyers, crime victims and opponents of the death penalty.
On Friday, Ogawa said the need for a national debate on capital punishment would not blunt his determination to execute more prisoners.
“Just because debate is taking place doesn’t necessarily mean that I would not fulfill my obligation to issue execution orders,” he said.
He also said he has ordered Justice Ministry officials to identify any issues surrounding the treatment of death-row inmates, and to disclose all relevant information for debate.
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