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Lawyers decry secrecy behind Japanese executions

Authorities are urged to release more information to the public on what they say is a 'cruel violation' of the constitution
Members of civic groups hold banners denouncing the death penalty during a demonstration in front of the Justice Ministry in Tokyo on June 26, 2014

Members of civic groups hold banners denouncing the death penalty during a demonstration in front of the Justice Ministry in Tokyo on June 26, 2014. (Photo:AFP)

Published: February 01, 2023 10:41 AM GMT

A group of lawyers representing three death row inmates in Japan criticized the government’s lack of transparency in its handling of executions and called for more discussions on the death penalty.

Advocate Kyoji Mizutani accused Japan’s government of carrying out executions “in secrecy both to the Japanese public and the outer world” in a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan (FCCJ) in Tokyo on Jan. 27, the Mainichi newspaper reported on Jan. 30.

Mizutani called on the authorities to debate the matter urging them to release more information to the public.

"The Japanese government has been keeping the facts about executions hidden from public view and avoiding debate on the matter," he said.

He expressed hope that Japan’s future generations and ever-evolving social climate would change public opinion on the death penalty.

Highlighting the level of secrecy maintained by the government, Mizutani displayed an almost fully redacted document received in response to a request for information regarding executions.

Mizutani and his team also criticized the method by which executions are carried out.

Japan carries out executions — while appeals are pending, on the same day after notifying the inmate of the decision in the morning, and by hanging — all of which Mizutani believes is “cruel and a violation of the constitution.”

Mizutani and other rights groups pointed out that Article 36 of the Japanese Constitution, which forbids torture and cruel punishments, is being violated when executions are carried out.

However, Japan's Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that execution by hanging was constitutional.

Japan has only started to reveal the names of those executed since 2007, and the public still knows little as executions are handled in secrecy and family members of the prisoners learn about them only after they have taken place.

Last November, Mizutani and his team filed a lawsuit at the Osaka District Court seeking a halt to executions and a total of 33 million yen (US$253,225) in damages on the grounds that death by hanging violates both international law and Japan's Constitution.

He was representing three plaintiffs whose death sentences were finalized at least 10 years ago. Two of the plaintiffs were seeking retrials in their case.

Mizutani and other human rights activists also point out that the death penalty violates the International Covenants on Human Rights, which Japan ratified.

The treaty prohibits inhumane punishments and the arbitrary deprivation of life.

Pio d'Emilia, a Japan-based Italian journalist who was present at the press conference urged the Japanese public “to face this issue [the death penalty] and think it through,”

He called upon bar associations in Japan to take the initiative to screen the 1968 Nagisa Oshima film Death by Hanging in high schools across the country to create awareness and have discussions on the matter.

Last July, the Japanese Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission called the death penalty an "attack on the inviolability and dignity of personality" after Tomohiro Kato, 39, was hanged.

Kato was convicted of killing seven people in a stabbing rampage in Tokyo’s popular Akihabara electronics district in 2008.

“The violence of the death penalty can never build a peaceful society. Rather, the barbarism that goes against the times creates new violence,” the bishops' said in an open letter.

Rights groups including Amnesty International also came out against the execution saying that it was “a callous attack on the right to life.”

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