Japanese officials reveal execution chambers

From New York Times:

TOKYO — The Japanese government opened up its execution chambers to the public for the first time on Friday, taking journalists on a tour of Tokyo’s main gallows. The insides were stark: a trapdoor, a Buddha statue and a ring for the noose.

The opening of the chambers was a bid by Japan’s justice minister, Keiko Chiba, to stir debate over a practice that is widely supported here.

Of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, only the United States and Japan use capital punishment. Japan currently has 107 inmates on death row, and no pardon is allowed. From 2000 to 2009, Japan sentenced 112 people to death and executed 46.

“I called for proper disclosure in the hope that it spurs debate over the death penalty and criminal sentencing,” Ms. Chiba, who opposes the death penalty, said at a news conference this month.

In July, Ms. Chiba approved — and witnessed — the hangings of two inmates convicted of murder, saying she was carrying out her duties as justice minister. Afterward, she said she still opposed capital punishment and ordered that journalists be given a tour of the facilities. She also promised to create a panel of experts to discuss the death penalty, including whether it should be stopped. The panel meets next month.

Japan has long been criticized by human rights activists for its capital punishment system. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors civil and political rights, has urged Japan to consider abolishing the death penalty, citing the large number of crimes that entail the death sentence, the lack of pardoning, the solitary confinement of inmates and executions at advanced ages and despite signs of mental illness.

Japan also has a 99 percent conviction rate, a figure critics attribute to widespread use of forced confessions. A series of false convictions have surfaced in recent months, including one of a 63-year-old man who had served 17 years of a life sentence for the murder of a 4-year-old girl. He was released after prosecutors admitted that his confession was a fabrication made under duress and DNA tests showed he was innocent. Critics say there is a high possibility that some of those on death row are innocent.

Inmates on death row are not told when they will be executed until the last minute — a procedure Japanese officials say prevents panic among inmates — and their family members and lawyers are informed only afterward, as are the news media.

Inmates can remain on death row as long as 40 years, though executions over the past decade have occurred on average after about 5 years and 11 months on death row, according to the public broadcast channel NHK. The Justice Ministry has refused to disclose how it makes decisions to go ahead with executions.

A large majority of Japan’s population supports capital punishment. A recent government survey showed that 86 percent of respondents are in favor of state executions for the worst crimes.

“Any debate should take into account the lifelong suffering that the victims’ families must bear,” said Isao Okamura, whose wife was murdered over a work dispute in 1997, in an interview with NHK.

All executions are carried out by hanging. Foreign news outlets, including The New York Times, were excluded from the visit, despite repeated requests to take part.

According to accounts in local news outlets, journalists were taken to the execution site in a bus with closed curtains, because its exact location is kept secret. There are seven such sites across Japan, the Justice Ministry said.

The journalists were led through the chambers, one by one: a chapel with a Buddhist altar where the condemned are read their last rites; a small room, also with a Buddha statue, where a prison warden officially orders the execution; the execution room, with a pulley and rings for the rope and a trapdoor where the condemned inmate stands; and the viewing room where officials witness the hanging.

The inmate is handcuffed and blindfolded before entering the execution room, officials said. Three prison wardens push separate buttons, only one of which releases the trapdoor — but they never find out which one. Wardens are given a bonus of about $230 every time they attend an execution.

Satoshi Tomiyama, the Justice Ministry official who later briefed the foreign news outlets and others excluded from the tour, said that wardens take the utmost care to treat death row inmates fairly and humanely.

The Buddha statues can be switched with an altar of the indigenous Japanese Shinto religion for followers of that faith, he said. For Christians, the prison provides a wooden cross. Inmates are given fruit and snacks before their execution, and sentences are not carried out on weekends, national holidays and around the New Year.

Mr. Tomiyama read a statement from a warden who carries out executions but did not identify him by name. Executions “are carried out somberly, and the tension is enough to make my hand shake,” he quoted the warden as saying.

Human rights activists criticize the conditions in which the inmates are made to await their death. They are held in solitary confinement in a cell about 50 square feet, which they leave only to exercise and bathe, both alone. They can request Japanese chess sets, but they must play alone. They are able to purchase newspapers and books, though the prison censors some of the content; articles about last month’s executions were blacked out in newspapers given to death row inmates. Relatives can visit, but friends cannot.

Kanae Doi, a lawyer who heads Human Rights Watch Japan, said she welcomed Japan’s steps toward more transparency. But “the death penalty should not be enforced by a majority opinion,” she said.

“Apart from Japan and the United States, the other countries in the world that carry out capital punishment are those accused of other grave human rights violations,” Ms. Doi said. “Japan should be ashamed to be on that list.”


For more stories on the unveiling of the execution chambers, click here.

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