The Japan Federation of Bar Associations will launch a campaign next month for the abolition of capital punishment, arguing that even the worst offenders stand a chance of reintegration in society.
It will ask its members to approve the move at a meeting on Oct. 7.
The JFBA has recently conducted a flurry of research into the death penalty, including hearing from a wide range of people and comparing Japan’s system with that in other countries.
Japan stands out among developed nations in clinging to the punishment, as more than two-thirds of nations have either abolished the death penalty or uphold a de facto moratorium on its use. The United States is the only other advanced nation that executes prisoners, although campaigners say it is tending toward abolition.
There have also been serious concerns about wrongful conviction resulting in execution in Japan, underscored by the exoneration of four death row inmates in the 1980s in retrials and the freeing of another in 2014 after he spent 48 years behind bars.
“If an innocent person or an offender who does not deserve to be sentenced to death is executed, it is an irrevocable human rights violation,” said Yuji Ogawara, a Tokyo-based lawyer who serves as secretary general of a JFBA panel on the death penalty.
The proposal will be submitted to the federation’s annual human rights meeting in the city of Fukui for formal adoption.
The federation is targeting abolition of the death penalty by 2020, when the U.N. Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice will be held in Japan.
In its 2011 declaration, the federation urged the government to initiate a public debate on the death penalty, but stopped short of clearly calling for its abolition.
Since then, the federation has explored the matter by organizing symposiums and hearing from lawmakers, Justice Ministry officials, journalists, diplomats and faith representatives.
It has also sent delegations overseas to research foreign penal systems, including in Britain, South Korea, Spain and the United States.
“There are still lawyers who support the death penalty, but I think we have developed an environment that enables us to seek its abolition,” said Ogawara, who was involved in drafting the proposal.
The federation wants the death penalty to be replaced with other options such as life without parole.
But it argues that even life without parole needs to include the possibility of release in cases when prisoners achieve rehabilitation. Failure to offer that possibility would be inhumane, the group says.
Ogawara said those who commit crimes are often the socially disadvantaged who stand a good chance of rehabilitation with the right approach.
“The penal system should contribute to promoting social reintegration of offenders, rather than satisfying the desire for retribution,” he said.
It is also important to give victims of crime and their families better support, the JFBA says in its proposal, adding that continued assistance is a “primary responsibility of society as a whole.”
In 2014, the U.N. Human Rights Committee urged Japan to “give due consideration to the abolition of the death penalty.”
The government justifies its policy by citing a survey that found more than 80 percent of people in Japan support executions.
Critics say the questionnaire was flawed.
Moreover, critics have assailed the secrecy surrounding executions in Japan, with neither death-row inmates nor their lawyers and families given advance notice of hangings.
It also remains unclear what criteria authorities use in deciding when inmates are to die.
Japan hanged two death-row inmates in March, bringing to 16 the total number of people executed since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in December 2012.