Japanese lawyers positioned themselves against the death penalty on Friday, as the Japan Federation of Bar Associations called for abolition of a punishment that critics say is uniquely cruel and vengeful.
JFBA members approved a declaration that seeks to abolish the death penalty by 2020 and to replace it with life imprisonment, a change that will bring Japan into line with most other developed nations.
The JFBA represents around 37,600 Japanese lawyers and hundreds of foreign legal professionals. In the past it has expressed unease over the death penalty but has stopped short of taking a stand against it.
Friday’s move will set the legal profession against the government, which has executed 16 people since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in 2012.
In a joint statement, the European Union and the Norwegian, Icelandic and Swiss embassies called the JFBA’s decision “timely and welcome.”
“We hope that an open, public debate on this issue in Japan will follow, allowing the people of Japan to weigh for themselves the evidence from a growing number of countries . . . that an abolition of death penalty can actually strengthen the capacity of judicial systems to effectively deliver justice and, at the same time, prevent irreversible miscarriages of justice,” they said.
The move was welcomed by activists, who say the death penalty is error-prone and leaves prisoners with no opportunity for rehabilitation.
“Capital punishment in all cases should be abolished because the inherent dignity of the person cannot be squared with the death penalty, a form of punishment unique in its cruelty and finality,” Kanae Doi of the Tokyo branch of Human Rights Watch said Friday.
“The death penalty is widely rejected by rights-respecting democracies around the world and I see no reason why Japan cannot follow the stream. I welcome the JFBA restarting the discussion in this direction.”
EU governments have been lobbying hard for Japan to end executions. British, French and Italian diplomats press the case regularly in their meetings with lawyers, legislators and journalists.
Some European diplomats privately express frustration that abolition is not even a subject of public debate in Japan.
The French Embassy in Tokyo said Friday it hopes that discussion will now emerge.
“We have been calling on Japan to introduce a moratorium for many years,” the embassy said in a statement. “In this respect, we salute the declaration of the JFBA. The death penalty is a moral issue, but it is also necessary to question its usefulness.”
Japan is one of only two Group of Seven nations that retain the death penalty.
In the U.S., figures show the trend is slowing. Executions in the U.S. this year are on track to be the lowest in 25 years, and the trend is matched by a sharp decline in the number of death sentences passed by American courts.
Japan’s death row prisoners are usually kept in solitary confinement and are required to stay silent, conditions that critics call both inhumane and excessively punitive.
Doubts about the reliability of convictions have been fueled by cases such as that of Iwao Hakamada. He was sentenced to death in 1968 in a case based on evidence apparently fabricated by police.
Hakamada was freed in 2014 but now lives with severe mental impairments after more than four decades on death row.
In 2015 Japan executed three prisoners. That year, the case of 89-year-old Masaru Okunishi also drew attention. He died in the hospital after 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.