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A man who was a minor when he killed four people was among two death row inmates Japan executed Tuesday morning, the Justice Ministry said, in a rare move that highlights the sensitive debate on punishment of juveniles in serious criminal cases.

Teruhiko Seki, 44, was 19 at the time of the crime. He became the second inmate to be hanged for a crime committed as a minor and the first such execution in 20 years. Norio Nagayama, who also killed four people when he was 19, was executed in 1997.

Seki killed a 42-year-old corporate executive, the man’s wife, 36, their 4-year-old daughter and the executive’s 83-year-old mother, while injuring the only survivor, a daughter who was 15, in 1992. He also stole ¥340,000 ($3,000) from their house in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture.

Seki’s case sparked a debate on the law dealing with juvenile crime, which says that those under 18 when crimes are committed cannot be given the death penalty.

Referring to that law, Seki’s lawyers had asked for a lighter sentence. They argued that because Seki had only recently turned 19 at the time of the murders, there wasn’t a big difference between him and a 17-year-old. They also said Seki could be rehabilitated and that the abuse he suffered as a child hampered his ability to control his actions.

“A minor is less able to judge things than adults and is easily affected by family and social circumstances. It is not appropriate to put responsibilities on individual minors and they should not be executed,” said lawyer Yuji Ogawara of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, which formally adopted a declaration calling for the abolishment of capital punishment in October 2016.

In December 2001, the Supreme Court upheld Seki’s death sentence, saying even taking into account that he was a minor, the death penalty is “unavoidable” considering the grave nature of his crime in killing four people.

Hidemichi Morosawa, the former head of Tokiwa University, said it is “not appropriate” to avoid the death penalty based on the “unscientific reason that young people can restore their lives.” Capital punishment is inevitable considering victims’ feelings and the effects of the crimes on society, he said.

The other inmate executed on Tuesday was Kiyoshi Matsui, a 69-year-old former plumber who killed his girlfriend and her parents in Gunma Prefecture in 1994.

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa ordered the executions, the nation’s first since another pair were hanged in July, bringing the total number of executions to 21 since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned to power in December 2012. Both Seki and Matsui had submitted requests for retrials, according to the ministry.

“These crimes were very heinous and utterly deplorable for the victims and their families. The death penalties were finalized following adequate trials in the courts.

I gave orders to execute them after careful consideration,” Kamikawa said at a news conference.

Seki and Matsui were hanged despite international criticism over Japan’s capital punishment policy and calls by civic groups to end the practice. Debate on the issue remains sluggish in Japan, though most developed countries have already done away with it.

In 1999 — when Matsui was appealing his death sentence — he wrote a piece in a weekly magazine arguing that capital punishment does “not have a deterrence effect on crime,” and that the severity of punishment has “absolutely nothing” to do with committing a crime.

Kamikawa has been reluctant to change the policy. At a news conference following her August inauguration as justice minister, she said she will “carefully and strictly deal (with executions) in line with laws and with respect for the judgments of the courts.”

In July this year, Kamikawa’s predecessor Katsutoshi Kaneda gave orders to hang two male inmates.

The two executed were Masakatsu Nishikawa, 61, who murdered four bar managers, in Hyogo, Shimane and Kyoto prefectures in 1991; and Koichi Sumida, 34, who killed a female colleague in Okayama Prefecture in 2011.

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