A two-day exhibition showcasing an array of paintings by death-row inmates kicked off Saturday in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

Organized by Amnesty International, the display is an attempt to draw public attention to the veiled agony of prisoners awaiting execution and who the human rights group says tend to be dismissed by society merely as “monsters.”

“When inmates are hanged, the government often describes them as ‘vicious villains’ and unworthy of any extenuating circumstances, which is exactly how the public perceives them,” said Osamu Amano, a chief organizer of the event. “So we wanted to do something that will provide a different angle to view these inmates.”

On exhibit are 101 pieces painted by the inmates and selected from past works submitted to a volunteer group set up in tribute to the late philanthropist Sachiko Daidoji, who tirelessly called for abolishing capital punishment. Since her passing in 2004, the group has annually encouraged death-row inmates to submit paintings.

Not all of the prisoners who contributed to the exhibition are resigned to dying, Amano said, and some still maintain their innocence. In one painting, for example, a female inmate expresses her plea for exoneration by depicting herself as trying in vain to crawl out of a dizzyingly deep well she is trapped in.

Japan and the United States are the only two members of the Group of Eight major industrialized nations that maintain the death sentence. Earlier this month, a convicted murderer was hanged in the third round of executions under Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki. Unlike in the U.S., the justice minister must sign off on every execution.

Amano said this is an eerie sign of “executions becoming the norm” in Japan, and voiced hope the exhibition will spur some soul-searching about the advisability of capital punishment.

“Death-row inmates are just as emotional as we are, because they are humans, just like us,” Amano said. “It’s humans, not monsters, who are being killed.”

Keiko Uchida, a 69-year-old homemaker who visited the exhibition Saturday, described the paintings as “nothing like I have ever seen.”

“We tend to think death-row inmates are villains who deserve no decent treatment at their deathbed because they did something horrible. But do they?” she asked.

The free show ends Sunday at Shibuya Cultural Center Owada.

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