If You Ask Me May 2014

Death penalty: for and against

National stance on executions requires serious review

Iwao Hakamada is 78 years old. A former professional boxer, he was recently released from the Tokyo Detention House after spending almost 50 years behind bars. For more than 30 of those years he was under sentence of death, accused and found guilty of robbery, murder and arson.

His release came after the presiding judge in the Shizuoka District Court ruled that new DNA evidence suggested “the possibility of his innocence [had] become clear to a respectable degree”.

The judge also indicated that investigators might have forged the evidence. The court suspended the death sentence.

Conditions in Japan’s prisons are harsh—they are intended to be penal after all—and for those on death row they are even harsher. Solitary confinement and with very restricted visiting rights must be hard enough to bear, but there is worse.

When the death sentence is passed and confirmed after appeal, no date is given for the execution. The convicted are given only a few hours notice that the sentence is to be carried out, and their families are told only after the event. Imagine waking up every day wondering if it will be your last.

Statistics as of the end of 2012 suggest that the average amount of time between final sentencing and execution in Japan was almost six years. Hakamada lived with that dark shadow for much longer than that, and he did so knowing that his conviction was false.

There are many recorded reports of people confessing to crimes they did not in fact commit. The Japanese authorities boast of an alarming—and surely implausible—99% conviction rate.

Suspects are routinely detained and interrogated, without charges being made, for up to 23 days, a period that may be extended several times on application to the court—and applications are rarely denied.

Though there is a legal right to representation by counsel, the authorities are under no obligation to ensure that such counsel is present during interrogations.

For someone to be coerced into confessing to a crime they did not commit and be imprisoned on that basis is in itself a terrifying travesty of justice. How much more repellent it is if the accused is then sentenced to death. Once that sentence is carried out there is no turning back.

Only a few days before Hakamada’s release, British Ambassador Tim Hitchens CMG LVO spoke at a symposium hosted by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. He expressed concern over Japan’s use of the death penalty and suggested a broader and more informed debate was needed.

This is surely even more important now that the system of lay judges has been introduced. How can anyone make an informed decision of such magnitude if they are unaware of the intricacies? And so much surrounding the issue of the death penalty in Japan is shrouded in secrecy.

The authorities are quick to point out that public opinion polls here show an overwhelming level of support for the death penalty where the crime is “heinous”. But critics counter that such polls are worded in such a way as to weight the outcome in favour of a yes vote.

Anyone with even a basic understanding of analytics knows that the way in which a question is asked can influence the way it is answered, and independent researchers have found that there is far less support for the death penalty than the official polls suggest.

Amnesty International has been a fierce critic of Japan’s position, pointing out that there is no evidence whatsoever that the death penalty is a deterrent.

The United Nations and other international bodies have also called for at least a moratorium, and even the Japanese Federation of Bar Associations calls for its abolition. Meanwhile, more than 130 people remain in solitary confinement not knowing whether tomorrow will be the day they must take their final steps to the gallows.