Two death row inmates, Koichi Shoji, 64, and Yasunori Suzuki, 50, were executed on Friday, the Justice Ministry said, marking the country’s first executions of 2019.

Both were sentenced to death for separate rape and murder charges of several women.

Justice Minister Takashi Yamashita ordered their executions on Wednesday.

“Sexual assault, including rape, is an unforgivable crime in itself. These cases were particularly harrowing, as the criminals also murdered their victims,” Yamashita said at a news conference Friday morning.

However, he declined to give any more details on how the executions were decided and carried out, repeating the government’s policy that “the decision was made following careful deliberation over whether there were any grounds for suspending the execution.”

Shoji was sentenced for killing Hiroko Hayashi, 54, and raping and killing Fumiko Osawa, 42, both in Kanagawa Prefecture, in conspiracy with his girlfriend in 2001. He also acted alone in raping and injuring another woman in Tokyo a year earlier.

Suzuki was found guilty for the rape and murder of Nana Kubota, 18, the killing of Toshiko Onaka, 62, and the attempted rape and murder of Keiko Fukushima, 23, over the course of four weeks from December 2004 to January 2005.

The hangings marked the first of the Reiwa Era and follow the executions of two inmates in Osaka in December last year. It also marks a little over a year since the executions of 13 former Aum Shinrikyo cult members over the span of three weeks in July last year rekindled public debate on capital punishment.

Yamashita declined to specify whether Shoji and Suzuki had requested retrials. However, he confirmed that out of 111 inmates on death row, 82 were making such requests. According to a statement by human rights group Amnesty International Japan, Shoji had been petitioning for a retrial.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations is calling for the abolishment of the death penalty by 2020, pointing to cases in which people on death row were later found innocent after retrial. It also questions the validity of hanging those who are petitioning for retrials.

But the public is overwhelmingly in favor of keeping capital punishment. A poll conducted by the government in 2014 found that 80 percent of the 1,826 respondents thought there were compelling reasons to keep the death penalty, whereas 10 percent thought the death penalty should be abolished.

When asked whether the death penalty should continue even if Japan were to introduce life sentences into the criminal justice system, 38 percent responded that capital punishment should be abolished and 52 percent said it should continue.

Amnesty International Japan strongly criticized Friday’s executions in a statement and urged Japan to never execute people on death row.

Information from Kyodo added

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