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October 16 2008 | JAPAN


Inmates tell their life in death rows to "Forum 90"

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Activists Reveal Japan's Death Row to the World


Catherine Makino

TOKYO, - Japan’s death row inmates revealed to the world on Friday their personal stories of isolation and suffering, uninformed until the last minute when they will be taken to the gallows.

They were participating in this year's World Day Against the Death Penalty, answering 14 questions in a survey conducted by Forum 90, a civil organisation opposed to capital punishment.

The questions were sent to the inmates late July and returned to Forum 90 through their families and lawyers. Forum 90 published the responses Friday on its Japanese Internet website --

The World Day is focusing its attention on Asia this year, calling for an end to executions in 14 countries of the region.

Japan’s death row inmates wrote of their suffering in solitary confinement, Akiko Takada, an administrative solicitor and member of Forum 90, told IPS.

"From seven in the morning until seven at night they have to sit still in a small space. If they move, fall over or lie down, the guards immediately force them to sit up again. They only exercise twice a week, for 30 minutes,’’ Takada said.

"Cameras watch them 24 hours a day -- while they eat, use the toilet, do anything."

Many said they were falsely charged and sentenced by an unfair justice system.

"Their defence lawyers told them during their trials to apologise, so they could receive lighter sentences, even if they were not guilty,’’ Takada said. "They asked, ‘Why did we have to say we were sorry when we were innocent?’

"Their lawyers give up because 99 percent are found guilty in the current legal system,’’ she said.

Many said they needed regular medical attention and were taking medication. Nearly half said they were seeking help from prison chaplains.

Seventy-six death row inmates filled out the questionnaires. Their ages ranged from around 20 to over 80. Two of those who participated were executed on September 11.

According to the justice ministry, there are now 102 people on death row.

Takada said Forum 90 faced strong public opposition to its work on behalf of death row inmates.

Everyday members received abusive calls for "trying to save murderers while not helping the families of the victims". Forum 90 had also seen its membership drop from 5,500 to 4,000.

Japanese were unlikely to change their minds about the death penalty because of outside pressure, Takada said. "There was a time when I thought international pressure would help, but the death penalty is part of Japanese culture."

Former justice minister Okihara Yasuoka agreed, adding: "Japan has a culture of shame. There is recognition that death is the only way to atone for some crimes."

Anti-death penalty activists are hoping that this might change when Japan introduces a long-debated "citizen justice system" for criminal trials in May next year.

Three professional judges and six lay jurors will pass judgments in capital cases.

"The impact on normal people of the compulsory lay judge system means the public cannot escape responsibility of being part of it," Teranaka Makoto, secretary general of Amnesty International Japan, told IPS.

"While the majority supports the death penalty, they don’t want to take responsibility by taking part in handing out executions."

On the Sixth World Day, the Paris-based World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP) denounced Japan for the "lack of transparency" surrounding its death penalty system.

"We also express our concern about Hakamada Iwao, sentenced to death in 1968 after an unfair trial," WCADP executive secretary, Cecile Thimoreau, told IPS. "He is now 72 and one of Japan’s longest-serving death row inmates. He is suffering from mental illness after spending over 28 years in solitary confinement. We emphasise the fact that no system is safe from judicial errors."

The general secretary of the International Federation for Human Rights, Florence Bellivier, also called on Japan to "eliminate the secrecy surrounding the practice of the death penalty".

Thirteen people have been executed in Japan so far this year.

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