Death row prisoners launch legal challenge to Japan’s no-notice executions

Two prisoners sentenced to death in Japan have appealed against the country's policy of giving only two hours' notice before executions are carried out.

By Alastair Wanklyn - Tokyo, Japan

Two prisoners sentenced to death in Japan have launched an appeal against how the country applies the death penalty.

Japan gives prisoners on death row only one or two hours' notice of their hanging, a policy that authorities say safeguards the victim’s “emotional stability.”

Campaigners say it deprives prisoners of their legal rights, as well as the chance to say goodbye to family or receive Church ministry.

Harrowing testimony

The case, brought by two anonymous death row prisoners in Osaka district court, contains harrowing testimony.

“When the prison officer opens the door of the prisoner’s room and announces the execution, the prisoner is immediately detained and taken to the place of execution,” the case quotes death row prisoner Hiroshi Sakaguchi as writing to lawyers. “The prisoner is tied up, handcuffed, and taken to the execution table in the same clothes, where he is hanged with a noose. … We, the condemned, are not allowed to object to the execution.”

Other testimony takes the form of an audio tape recorded in 1955, which shows the final hours of an unnamed prisoner at a time when notice periods were longer. In the tape, the man receives three days’ notice of his upcoming execution and spends the time making affectionate farewells to inmates and his visiting sister, who sobs. The tape includes sound of the man being hanged as Buddhist priests chant sutras.

Japan now has tightened the notice period to one to two hours, giving prisoners insufficient time to contact anyone outside the prison or even to reflect on their upcoming death.

Criticism of the policy

Takeshi Kaneko, a lawyer acting in Osaka for the two anonymous prisoners, says the policy is wrong.

“If you give notice on the day, you can’t prepare well,” Kaneko said. “It’s only due to the convenience of the authorities that they let the prisoner know on the morning of the day. That is a mistake.”

Moreover, the policy denies prisoners the chance to contact a lawyer, and therefore the right of appeal. At least one prisoner was executed while an appeal was underway.

Japan’s Justice Ministry has never said why or when it adopted immediate executions. It says only the policy ensures the prisoner’s “emotional stability.”

Campaigners believe it may be an attempt to prevent suicide. One death-row inmate killed himself in 1975, and the policy may date from that time.

Secrecy surrounds executions

The uncertainty points to the secrecy surrounding executions in Japan. The Justice Ministry announces a victim’s name and conviction but nothing else, citing non-disclosure and privacy rules. Some prisoners are held for more than a decade on death row before being killed on an apparently arbitrary date.

The secrecy means there is almost no public debate in Japan about the death penalty or how it is applied. Campaigners believe many people are even unaware that all prisoners are hanged, a policy unchanged since the 19th century.

“Since only two pieces of information are disclosed by the authorities, this is a situation in which it is impossible to discuss the death penalty system,” Kaneko said.

Hoping for a wider discussion

The current court case does not seek to overthrow the death penalty. The lawyers are challenging one small part of the procedure as a way to start a wider discussion.

“I’d like to ask everyone what they think about the death penalty,” Kaneko said. “Should the notice period be 30 days, 90 days, or even longer? Since there’s no discussion in Japan, we can raise awareness of the problem.”

Kaneko recommends that Japan consider following procedures in the United States, where prisoners in some states are given freedom to meet guests, write letters and eat a last meal of choice. This retains some of their dignity and offers a measure of healing.

If Japan adopted advance notice, it might allow prisoners a final tea ceremony and a chance to write haiku poetry, the Osaka court case argues.

International commitments

In 1979, Japan became a member of the Covenant on Civil Liberties, which prohibits “painful and humiliating” methods of execution. The Committee on Civil Liberties, which oversees implementation of the covenant, has several times expressed concern that death row inmates are executed without prior notice, and that their families cannot prepare themselves. This, it says, is cruel.

Meanwhile, the legal team in Osaka fears retribution against the two prisoners in this court case. They could be executed any day, for an undisclosed reason.

Because of that, the court is not being told their names.

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24 October 2022, 14:56