Thursday’s executions of six Aum Shinrikyo cultists — the second set of hangings this month following the executions of seven on July 6 — have reignited debate over the nation’s death penalty system, marked by its opacity and the absence of prior notice to the public, while some continue to back the practice as a necessary measure to bring justice.
The latest executions took place only three weeks after Shoko Asahara, former guru of the doomsday cult, was sent to the gallows along with six of his disciples in what many perceived as a conclusion of the decadeslong Aum saga that culminated in the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.
After Thursday’s hangings, all 13 Aum cultists that had been sentenced to death have now been executed.
“It is probably unprecedented in the history of postwar Japan for as many as 13 death-row inmates to be executed within a month,” said lawyer Yuji Nakamura, who has long followed the Aum-related cases closely and supported victims of the cult’s crimes, at a packed news conference in Tokyo.
Shizue Takahashi, whose husband, Kazumasa, was killed in the subway attack, said that she had long been waiting for the day justice would be served.
“As far as Aum death-row inmates are concerned, it’s inconceivable not to execute them,” she told the news conference.
But even so, Takahashi voiced frustration with the current system, which is notorious for its secrecy, and said the Justice Ministry should be more forthcoming with information on the lives of death-row inmates and about granting them visitations.
“At the moment, so little information on the death penalty is made available that we can’t even begin to discuss the system,” Takahashi said.
The widow said she found an encouraging sign of progress with the fact that a Justice Ministry official personally called her Thursday morning to specify the names of the Aum cultists being sent to the gallows.
“I hope tiny little steps like this will eventually evolve to a point where the cruelty of capital punishment can be more openly discussed,” she said.
Thursday’s development also prompted various human rights groups to issue statements condemning the executions and what they perceive to be systemic flaws in the way Japan conducts capital punishment.
According to Amnesty International, Thursday’s executions marked the first time since 2008 that the annual number of hangings has topped 10 in Japan. It is “extremely rare” for two rounds of hangings to take place within a month, the group said.
“No one can deny that the crimes committed by former members of Aum Shinrikyo were abhorrent, but the death penalty in Japan — at times conducted when an inmate is seeking retrial coupled with the last-minute notice to inmates before the actual execution — is an irreversible and inhumane punishment,” said Human Rights Watch program officer Teppei Kasai.
“The executions of former Aum Shinrikyo members conducted today aren’t exceptions,” he said.
Others lamented that the latest hangings effectively dashed what little hope they had of the imprisoned Aum inmates coming forward with new testimonies and shedding light on enigmatic aspects of the doomsday cult.
Takeshi Ono, who heads a group of lawyers following Aum-related cases and supporting crime victims, wrote in a statement that the series of Aum incidents are particularly worth re-examining in that “many talented young minds joined the cult and did a huge amount of harm to society, and their activities remain alive today even though the cult itself has disbanded.”
Ono’s group had long called for a suspension of the hangings for the 12 disciples of Asahara whom it has described as “bearing important witness” to the inner thinking of the mysterious cult. The executions have “brought a closure” to the Aum saga, but at the same time made it virtually impossible to “comprehensively investigate and analyze” atrocities committed by Aum, Ono said.
Meanwhile, VS forum, a Tokyo-based lawyers’ group supporting crime victims, issued a statement defending Thursday’s executions.
Lawyer Masato Takahashi, a representative of the group, hit back at the criticism that the latest hangings fly in the face of a “global trend” toward abolishing capital punishment, saying the death penalty constitutes the foundation of Japan’s public order and that opinions of the global society shouldn’t take priority.
“Whatever capital punishment system we adopt doesn’t affect other countries. It’s a matter over which Japan should have sole say,” Takahashi said.
According to Amnesty International, more than 140 countries around the world have either abolished the death penalty or effectively shelved the practice. Japan, the United States and South Korea are the sole Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development members that continue capital punishment, though Seoul has not executed anyone since 1997.
Takahashi also denied that Japan is disregarding the human rights of the accused by upholding the death penalty, saying that — unlike some other countries — criminals here are rarely shot to death by police at the scene of a crime.
In this sense, “nowhere around the world are human rights of the suspects and defendants being cherished more than in Japan, where the death penalty is scrutinized very carefully in trial, after trial, and sometimes even rescinded by a higher court,” Takahashi said.
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