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Last Updated: Friday, 7 December 2007, 09:11 GMT
Secrecy of Japanese executions
By Chris Hogg
BBC News, Tokyo

Japanese Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama, 7th Dec
Japan's justice minister named those executed for the first time
Noboru Ikemoto, a pensioner who had been convicted of killing three people, probably did not have any idea that his evening meal on Thursday was to be his last.

Seiha Fujima, convicted of killing five people while in his early 20s, will also not have known he was about to be taken to the gallows.

Nor would Hiroki Fukawa, a convicted double killer.

Japan does not tell death row prisoners that they are to be hanged until the last possible minute.

This has been condemned by the international community.

The failure to give advanced notice of executions is incompatible with articles 2, 7 and 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Human Rights, according to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

But it is arguably no more cruel than the conditions in which death row inmates are kept while awaiting their fate.

Some reports put the average amount of time a prisoner given the death penalty waits for the sentence to be carried out at seven years and 11 months. It is hard to get an accurate figure.

'Harsh regime'

Amnesty International says the inmates live under "a harsh regime and in solitary confinement with the ever-present fear of execution. They never know if each day will be their last."

Reports in the Japanese media describe how the men are kept in "toilet-sized cells".

Because they are awaiting execution, they are held mostly in detention centres, not prisons. They have fewer rights than other prisoners.

Shoko Asahara (archive image)
Cult leader Shoko Asahara is on Japan's death row
It is reported that they are permitted two periods of exercise a week (three times in summer) and not even allowed to do limited exercise within their cells.

Again it is hard to confirm what the conditions are actually like for each inmate - the nature of the regime is up to the director of each detention centre.

But many of those kept locked up alone for years are now getting older.

The oldest is said to be Tomizo Ishida, who is 86. He was convicted for rape and double murder in the early 1970s.

Some die before the sentence can be carried out.

In total there are 104 people on death row in Japan. So far this year nine have been executed.

Before 1998 the Ministry of Justice would not even confirm that executions had been carried out. There was simply an annual total released.

Only in the last 10 years has it released details of how many inmates were executed on a particular day.

Small step forward

Friday's executions were the first time it has announced the inmates' names.

Japan's Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama says this was done "to gain the understanding of the bereaved families of the victims and the public over the appropriateness of executions".

Amnesty International, while "strongly protesting" the decision to execute the three convicted murderers, acknowledges that the change in policy over the naming of those executed represents a shift towards more openness - but it adds that there is a long way to go.

There were no candlelit vigils outside the detention centres where the men were hanged - though this is not surprising since no one, not even their families, was told they were to die on Friday morning.

Critics of the process say that the still quite considerable secrecy surrounding the executions is not only cruel, it is stifling debate about the issue.

Lawmakers rarely raise the question of the death penalty in parliament.

Opinion polls suggest only 6% of Japanese people oppose the practice, though campaigners say this is because few people know much about the conditions in which the death row inmates are kept.

Friday's executions were not headline news here.

In other countries, opposition to the death penalty is often mobilised by Christian churches. But religious groups in Japan have chosen not to campaign on the issue.

Japan's foreign ministry was reluctant to discuss the circumstances surrounding the latest executions with the BBC.

It should be pointed out that Japan incarcerates a far smaller proportion of its citizens than Britain or the United States.

But critics of the justice system are concerned about its reliance on confessions. There are allegations that in some cases these are forced from suspects by police and prosecutors.

Those who oppose the death penalty here say there are not enough safeguards to prevent innocent people being put to death.



SEE ALSO
Three prisoners executed in Japan
07 Dec 07 |  Asia-Pacific
Who stands where on the death penalty
30 Dec 06 |  Middle East
Four prisoners executed in Japan
25 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Death penalty for Japan cult guru
27 Feb 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Country profile: Japan
26 Sep 07 |  Country profiles

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