Japan announces death penalty review after hanging two men

Japan angered abolitionists by executing two men this week, in the first hangings since the country’s center-left government took office in September. Tokyo's new government says it still has plans to review its use of the death penalty.

Justice Minister Keiko Chiba announced the executions of two death row inmates in a press conference at the Justice Ministry in Tokyo on July 28, in the first execution under the Democratic Party of Japan government launched in September 2009.

Japan's government says it has plans to review its use of the death penalty after it angered abolitionists by executing two men this week, in the first hangings since the country’s center-left government took office in September.

Justice Minister Keiko Chiba took the unprecedented step of attending the executions of Kazuo Shinozawa and Hidenori Ogata at the Tokyo Detention Center on Wednesday.

Shinozawa burned six women to death after setting a jewelry store alight in 2000; Ogata strangled a woman and fatally stabbed a man in 2003.

Minister Chiba, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, had raised hopes that Japan was moving towards a de facto moratorium on hangings after her appointment last year.

“It is not that I changed my mind,” said Ms. Chiba, who was a member of a parliamentarians’ group opposed to the death penalty until she became justice minister. “I attended the executions as I believe it is my duty to see them through.

"Witnessing [them] with my own eyes made me think deeply about the death penalty, and I once again strongly felt that there is a need for a fundamental discussion.”

Human rights groups condemned the executions, which came a year to the day after the last round of hangings.

“Japan continues to go against the international trend toward abolition and mete out this cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment,” said Donna Guest, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific program. “A day that should have marked one year without executions has instead seen Japan return to carrying out state-sponsored killings.”

Japan has resisted pressure from the European Union, which calls for the universal abolition of capital punishment.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said she “deeply regretted” the executions.

Japan and the US are the only members of the G8 to retain the death penalty, while, according to Amnesty, 139 countries – about two-thirds of the world’s total – have either abolished or stopped using the punishment. For the first time in five years Taiwan also recently carried out executions after the resignation of a justice minister who had been criticized for saying she would not sign death warrants.

Chiba said she had instructed the detention center to allow the media to visit the facility and ordered the justice ministry to form a panel to review Japan’s retention of capital punishment. However, it appears there was no advance notice to the public on the executions.

This week’s executions bring the number of condemned inmates in Japan to 107. They typically spend years on death row and are not informed of their execution until moments before they are hanged. Their lawyers and relatives are informed only after the sentence has been carried out.

Chiba may soon be replaced as justice minister after losing her seat in upper house elections earlier this month. She reportedly signed the execution orders last Saturday, a day before her parliamentary term was due to end.

Amnesty said any debate about capital punishment should coincide with a freeze on executions. “It is contradictory to execute someone while proposing a debate on it,” it said in a statement.

Still, despite recent hopes for an end to the death penalty, opposition to the death penalty among citizens in Japan is muted. According to a government poll conducted in February, a record 85.6 percent of respondents said retaining the punishment was “unavoidable.”

Given that level of support, Chiba herself appeared to suggest that Japan would continue to send people to the gallows. "I think it will be something for this country's people to decide if, after various discussions, the majority of public opinion is for the death penalty to be abolished,” she said.


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