A group of former lay judges submitted a petition to the justice minister Monday calling for an immediate halt to capital punishment and greater transparency on how it’s carried out.

The petition was compiled by 20 citizens who have participated in criminal trials as lay judges.

Some of the members helped condemn defendants to the gallows and are now “feeling guilty that they will sooner or later become ‘indirect murderers’ of (fellow) human beings,” said former lay judge Masayoshi Taguchi, who is spearheading the move.

Japan and the United States are the only two countries in the Group of Eight industrialized nations that use capital punishment, although in the U.S., executions are generally carried out at the state level. Japan is often criticized by human rights organizations for the opaque way it selects death-row inmates for execution. Unlike other countries, the inmates are not told when they are going to die.

This secrecy surrounding the system is largely responsible for the ex-lay judges’ distress, Taguchi said. They are tormented by the role they play in contributing to someone’s execution despite knowing very little about how it takes place, he said.

Some Japanese even mistakenly think inmates are being electrocuted. They don’t even know how death-row inmates are customarily treated till their execution, or why they are notified of their hanging just hours in advance, he added.

“There are so many things about the practice that remain unknown to the public. If the government is asking its citizens to participate in the trials and pass judgment, then it should play fairer and do its utmost to disclose more details,” Taguchi said.

The petition, however, is not meant to deny capital punishment or demand its permanent abolishment, Taguchi stressed. In fact, among the 20 who compiled the letter, some personally support the death penalty.

The petition’s primary purpose is to call for greater disclosure of the details surrounding executions and urge the public to discuss the system more freely. Unless these goals are achieved, executions should be halted for the time being, the petition states.

“I hope the petition will make people realize that it’s their basic responsibility, as citizens living in a democracy, to supervise what authorities are doing,” Taguchi said.

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