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Amnesty slams Japan over death penalty as global executions soar

by and

Staff Writers

Recorded executions worldwide surged by more than 50 percent last year to the highest level in a quarter-century, a human rights group said Wednesday.

Amnesty International cited the three executions that Japan carried out in 2015 as contributing to a total of 1,634 worldwide. The tally does not include China, where the figure is considered a state secret.

“The rise in executions last year is profoundly disturbing,” Amnesty Secretary-General Salil Shetty said. “In 2015 governments continued relentlessly to deprive people of their lives on the false premise that the death penalty would make us safer.”

In its report, Amnesty leveled additional criticism at Japan for executing or holding on death row prisoners with mental or intellectual disabilities.

One of the inmates killed last year was 89-year-old Masaru Okunishi. He spent 46 years on death row, fighting to clear his name in the murders of five women. He said his confessions were forced and sought a retrial on nine occasions.

“Until the end he was fighting to clear his name. He is a good example of why the authorities in Japan should review their criminal justice system,” Amnesty spokeswoman Chiara Sangiorgio told Kyodo News on Wednesday.

Sangiorgio urged Japan to follow the lead of the United States and initiate a debate on the death penalty. Some activists say replacing the punishment with life imprisonment without parole would have little political cost for the government.

Japanese activists echoed the criticism. Taku Fukada of lobby group Forum 90 said the high rate of executions under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — his current administration has put 16 prisoners to death — and rising numbers of inmates on death row goes against the global trend toward abolition.

Fukada said the introduction of the lay judge system in 2009 has resulted in individuals being unable to appeal to the nation’s highest court, due to speedier convictions.

“Many people who were sentenced to death cannot defend themselves by expressing their remorse for what they did or by providing new evidence” in seeking an appeal, Fukada said.

“Whether they appeal or not, we must send all cases of capital punishment to the Supreme Court before finalizing the sentence — a fundamental step taken in other countries such as the United States. Otherwise, the number of people on death row will continue to rise.”

The latest two were hanged on March 25, a solemn day in the Christian calendar known as Good Friday. Some activists considered the timing insensitive.

On the day, Amnesty slammed the two executions as “reprehensible,” alleging a failure of leadership by Abe. “It is long overdue for Japan to abolish this cruel and inhumane punishment,” Hiroka Shoji, an Amnesty researcher said in a statement responding to the deaths.

The two victims had spent five and 10 years on death row. Former nurse Junko Yoshida, 56, was convicted for conspiring with other women to kill two of their husbands for insurance payouts. Yasutoshi Kamata, 75, was convicted of the murders of four women and a 9-year-old girl.

Advocates of penal reform point to problems with Japan’s handling of death-row inmates. They are typically kept in solitary confinement, prevented from speaking to fellow prisoners and deprived of most contact from outside — ostensibly to maintain their peace of mind.

Solitary confinement is widely seen as fueling mental health problems. Iwao Hakamada, who walked free in 2014 after more than four decades on death row, developed dementia during his 45 years of isolation and is mostly unable to communicate.

“Death-row prisoners are given only limited opportunities to talk with their families, attorneys and friends. . . . People can easily lose their minds if kept in such a situation for years,” said Fukada of Forum 90. “Japan continues to hang people who have completely lost their ability (to apply for a retrial). I don’t think that’s right.”

There are currently 124 inmates on death row in Japan, of whom 89 are seeking retrials and 22 have appealed for amnesties, according to the Justice Ministry.

Information from Kyodo added