Expectations are growing that Pope Francis will meet with an 83-year-old man whose death sentence was recently suspended after a 48-year stint on death row, to send a clear signal about his opposition to capital punishment.
It was reported in mid-September that the Vatican is considering having the pope meet with Iwao Hakamada, the former boxer who was convicted of a 1966 quadruple murder, when the pontiff visits Japan next month. Hakamada was released in 2014 under a district court ruling citing DNA evidence and is awaiting retrial at the Supreme Court.
With the Catholic Church having announced in August last year a change in its catechism to state that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” campaigners hope the pope will issue some kind of message to Japan about the death penalty if the meeting takes place.
“I expect the upcoming trip to be an opportunity to appeal to the pope’s strong determination that all life should be protected,” said Tomoki Yanagawa of the Jesuit Social Center in Tokyo. “He must be interested in issues in Japan related to (the sanctity) of life, such as suicide, death from overwork and poverty as well as the death penalty.”
While the pope’s two predecessors both spoke out against the death penalty, Francis was the first to change official church teaching on the issue.
Yanagawa, as a Catholic, has been working to abolish the death penalty together with like-minded people from other religious backgrounds, including Buddhists, based on a shared belief in the sacrosanct value of human life. He co-founded an anti-death penalty civil group recently with lawyers and scholars.
Japan is one of only a few advanced nations still using the death penalty. More than two-thirds of states around the world have abolished it by law or in practice.
Hope for the meeting emerged last year when the Holy See asked the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan to compile a report on, Hakamada, who received baptism on Christmas Eve in 1984 while behind bars.
The man who holds the world record for time spent on death row has been struggling to clear his name over the murder of a family of four. He was freed after the Shizuoka District Court granted a retrial based on DNA evidence and suspended his death sentence and incarceration.
His release from the Tokyo Detention House received widespread media coverage. But the Tokyo High Court overturned the lower court’s decision last year over doubts about the DNA tests. Hakamada appealed to the Supreme Court and, due to his age, was allowed to stay free while his case is pending.
Inspired by the Catholic Church’s change of stance on capital punishment under Pope Francis, Hakamada’s older sister, Hideko, sent a letter to the Vatican in May.
“I wrote that it would be the best gift for my brother if the pope could meet with him in Tokyo even for one minute,” said Hideko, 86. “I hope the meeting will take place in a quiet and calm atmosphere, not as a spectacular event.”
Hideko has devotedly supported her brother, whose mental health deteriorated during decades of solitary confinement spent under the constant threat of execution.
Kim Sung-woong, a director who made a documentary about Hakamada, said he hopes the case will once more receive attention if the meeting goes ahead.
“His appeal is pending at the top court, and Mr. Hakamada might be detained again according to its decision,” said Kim, who has closely followed the siblings’ lives since his release.
“The pope will meet with Mr. Hakamada with the understanding that he is still on death row,” he said. “People will inevitably pay close attention to such a situation.”
Separately, defense lawyers for Hakamada also wrote to the Vatican, saying a meeting with the pope would greatly encourage him.
Japan has been urged by a U.N. human rights body to establish a moratorium on the death penalty as a first step toward its abrogation.
Executions continue. Last year, 15 death row inmates including the founder and 12 senior figures of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult were hanged last year.
In August, two more were executed, bringing the number to about 38 since 2012.
In Japan, the death penalty enjoys robust public support: According to a 2014 government poll, only 9.7 percent believe it should be abolished and 80.3 percent agree its existence “cannot be helped.”
Despite the unfavorable climate for death penalty opponents, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations declared in 2016 it will work toward abolishing capital punishment by 2020. It said the exoneration of four such inmates in the 1980s and Hakamada’s case show executions of the innocent are inevitable under capital punishment.
In its own letter to the Vatican, the JFBA asked the pope to issue a public message to call for terminating capital punishment.
Pope Francis, the first pontiff in nearly four decades to travel to Japan, will visit from Nov. 23 to 26. His itinerary includes the atomic-bombed cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with Tokyo.
It is also expected that the pope will meet with those affected by the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that hit the Tohoku region and led to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima No. 1 power plant.