Friday, December 26, 2008

"Japanese homicides fall, but hangings rise

"TOKYO — Japan is executing criminals at its fastest pace in more than three decades, defying international condemnation and bucking a trend away from the death penalty across Asia.

"The increase comes as homicides actually are on the decline — the lowest since World War II, according to Japan's National Police Agency. But the public, fed a steady diet of lurid crime news by the Japanese news media, is more fearful than ever.

""The number of killings is declining," says Ryosuke Matsuura, who leads Amnesty International's campaign against the death penalty in Japan. "But the public believes Japan is getting more dangerous."

"Tatsuya Mori, author of the book Shikei (Execution) on the death penalty in Japan, says, "People's fear is getting stronger."

"He says ordinary Japanese are bewildered and frightened by senseless crimes, such as the sarin gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyo cult that killed 12 commuters in the Tokyo subway in 1995.

"Japan and the United States are the only nations in the Group of Eight large, wealthy countries that still impose the death penalty. Japan hanged 15 convicts this year, up from nine in 2007 and the most since 17 were executed in 1975. In the U.S., 37 have been executed so far this year, down from 42 last year.

"Other Asian countries have been abolishing, reconsidering or reducing executions. The Philippines banned the death penalty in 2006. Singapore, which once had the world's highest executions per capita, killed two prisoners in 2007, down from a peak of 76 in 1994. And Pakistan's government this year proposed granting everyone on death row a life sentence.

"The United Nations Human Rights Council in October urged Japan to abolish the death penalty, joining similar pleas from the European Union and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International.

"But the Japanese government hasn't buckled to outside pressure.

""In 2006, a large EU delegation toured Japan, promoting abolition," says Michael Fox, director of the Japan Death Penalty Information Center. "The Japanese Ministry of Justice responded by hanging four people on (that) Christmas Day."

"The ministry executed two men this past October, days before the U.N. was due to issue its report criticizing Japan's use of the death penalty.

"In April, Japan for the first time executed a prisoner for murders committed as a teenager.

"Last year, a 75-year-old Japanese man went to the gallows for a murder he committed 22 years earlier, prompting then-U.N. high commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour to protest: "It is difficult to see what legitimate purpose is served by carrying out such executions of the elderly. … I would urge Japan to refrain from such action."

"In 2005 and 2006, the gallows went unused during Seiken Sugiura's 15-month term as justice minister. Sugiara said his Buddhist faith prohibited him from imposing the death penalty.

"Executions resumed under his successors. One of them, Kunio Hatoyama, was dubbed the "Grim Reaper" by the liberal Asahi newspaper for authorizing the execution of 13 prisoners in seven months.

"The Japanese public stands firmly behind the executions: A 2005 government survey found that support for the death penalty had surpassed 80% for the first time, up from less than 57% in 1975, according to The Japan Times newspaper.

"Still, homicides have been dropping in Japan since 2004 and hit a low of 1,134 last year. By contrast, there were 3,081 murders in 1954.

"Mori, the author, argues that ordinary Japanese might have second thoughts about executions if they knew more about them. State killings are shrouded in secrecy. Until last year, the government didn't even announce the names of those put to death.

""The government hides it, and people don't want to know about it," Mori says.

"Critics say Japan's death row is particularly inhumane. The condemned are isolated from other prisoners. "Once the appeals process is complete, a death row prisoner in Japan may wait for years or even decades before execution," Amnesty International reports.

"And in an attempt to prevent death row suicides, prisoners aren't told they are going to be executed until hours before they are led to the gallows. Their families find out only after the hanging."

By Paul Wiseman and Naoko Nishiwaki (USA Today, 12/23/2008), Link to article (last visited 12/26/2008)

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