National / Crime & Legal

Amnesty hopes Hakamada's release will spur death penalty reform in Japan


A prominent human rights group hopes the decision to release the world’s longest serving death row inmate will spur greater debate in Japan about capital punishment and spur domestic reforms.

Chiara Sangiorgio, spokeswoman for Amnesty International, said Wednesday she is happy with last year’s decision to release — pending a retrial — 79-year-old Iwao Hakamada, who was sentenced to death in 1968.

“We hope that through Hakamada’s case we can put under the spotlight the plight of all the others on death row and the effects of solitary confinement and the secrecy and lack of notification of executions,” Sangiorgio said.

“All this has clearly led to tangible effects on Hakamada’s health. It’s an unsafe conviction which led to him spending over 45 years on death row.”

Hakamada was sentenced to death for the 1966 murder of four people in Shizuoka Prefecture who were all from the same family. He was freed in March 2014 after a court cast doubt on the evidence used to convict him and ordered a retrial. Prosecutors are challenging the move.

“We need further debate in Japan,” Sangiorgio said. “Some hope has come from the introduction of the lay judge system and we saw last year that a group of lay judges involved in a death penalty case asked for more transparency in the way the death penalty is applied.

“Often transparency is the beginning of the debate, and we hope it begins meaningfully in Japan.”

Sangiorgio said she was disappointed Hakamada’s case had failed to lead to any systemic changes and she highlighted the fact that several others on death row suffer, like Hakamada, from mental and intellectual maladies.

“We are amazed that no better checks have been put in place to ensure that mental health assessments are carried out and that people are taken off death row,” she added. “It is in the power of the minister of justice.”

The rights group also released its global death penalty statistics for 2014 on Wednesday. This year’s report says Japan executed three people in 2014. Amnesty noted that executions in the country are shrouded in secrecy, and that relatives and lawyers are told in advance. Traditionally, however, the inmate is only told on the day of the hanging.

Two new death sentences were handed down in Japan last year, both for murder. At the end of 2014 there were 128 people on death row, excluding Hakamada, Amnesty said. Six foreigners were among them. Of the total, 93 were seeking retrials.

Japan resumed executions in March 2012 after a 20-month pause. The government argues that public opinion overwhelmingly supports the policy.

In global terms, 2014 saw a sharp spike in death sentences, up 28 percent on the previous year. The rise was largely accounted for by Egypt and Nigeria. At least 2,466 sentences were imposed around the world.

There were 607 known executions during the year, down almost 22 percent. Executions were recorded in 22 countries, the same as in 2013.

Amnesty does not provide figures for China, which considers such information a state secret.

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