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Thursday, 29 March 2012

Japan has carried out its first executions in more than 18 months, hanging three death row inmates


Japan has carried out its first executions in more than 18 months, hanging three death row inmates on Thursday morning and angering campaigners who believed the country was moving towards abolition. Reports said the three men were hanged at prisons in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Fukuoka. They included Yasuaki Uwabe, who was convicted of killing five people at a train station in 1999. The executions are the first since July 2010; none of the 132 people on death row were executed in all of 2011, the first time a year had passed without executions for 19 years. Their executions came as a blow to campaigners, who only this week welcomed Japan's apparent de facto moratorium on capital punishment. Hideki Wakabayashi, executive director of Amnesty International Japan, accused the Democratic party of Japan (DPJ) government of reneging on an earlier promise to look seriously at its use of the death penalty. "We still need to have a national debate," Wakabayashi told the Guardian. "But while we are doing that there has to be a moratorium on executions. The DPJ is supposed to support human rights. The executions also run against the international movement against he death penalty. I don't know where Japan thinks it is going with this." There is speculation that the justice minister, Toshio Ogawa, has come under pressure from senior DPJ colleagues, including the prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, to sign off on executions while the party attempts to sell a controversial consumption tax rise to the public, which remains overwhelmingly in favour of the death penalty. "Public support for Noda's cabinet is declining, so my personal feeling is that this was one of many steps aimed at boosting its approval ratings," Wakabayashi said. Earlier this week Amnesty International had singled out Japan for praise over the absence of executions in 2011, despite evidence that successive justice ministers had come under intense pressure to sign death warrants. In the announcement, Amnesty's Catherine Baber did not that "executions could resume at any time". "We continue to be concerned for the roughly 130 people on death row, including several prisoners with mental illnesses, and we call on the minister of justice not to resume executions but rather to work towards abolition." In September 2010 the then justice minister, Keiko Chiba, ordered a review of the death penalty. Her four immediate successors refused to approve executions, but Ogawa, who was appointed to the post in January, said the review had reached an impasse. "I don't really want to do it, but its is part of the justice minister's job description," he told journalists. "With 130 inmates on death row and public opinion 85% in favour of the death sentence, it would be inexcusable of me not to sign off on executions." In a damning 2009 report Amnesty accused the Japanese authorities of subjecting death row inmates to "cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment". Campaigners have also voiced concern over the safety of several convictions, including that of Masaru Okunishi, who has spent four decades on death row for the poisoning deaths of five women in 1961. Prisoners are not told when they will be executed until a few hours before they are led away to the gallows, and their relatives and lawyers are informed only after the execution has been carried out. In a report issued this week, Amnesty noted a rise in the number of executions worldwide in 2011 [PDF], mainly due to a significant increase in the Middle East. The US - the only G7 country to carry out executions last year - is one of 58 countries including Japan, China and Iran that retain capital punishment. More than 140 countries, including all EU members, have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.


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