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Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2006
Four sent to the gallows
Death penalty foes slam Christmas Day hangings
By JUN HONGO
The Justice Ministry sent four death row inmates to the gallows Monday, inflaming lawmakers and protesters over the first executions to be carried out in 15 months.
Justice Minister Jinen Nagase's rare Christmas Day approval sealed the fates of Yoshimitsu Akiyama, 77, and Yoshio Fujinami, 75, at the Tokyo Detention House; of Michio Fukuoka, 64, at the Osaka Detention House; and of Hiroaki Hidaka, 44, in Hiroshima.
They were the first hangings since September 2005, and it was first time more than three went to the gallows on a single day since August 1997.
Akiyama was put to death for the 1975 slaying of a woman who ran a plastics processing firm in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture. He struck her in the head and fled with 10 million yen of her money to repay debts. He also tried to run his wife down after taking out life insurance on her. His death penalty was finalized in 1987.
Fujinami was hanged for murdering two relatives in March 1981 at his former brother-in-law's home in Tochigi Prefecture after they refused to tell him where his ex-wife was. He also seriously injured the brother-in-law's two nieces and robbed the house of 7 million yen. His death penalty was confirmed in 1993.
Fukuoka strangled his wife's sister in Kochi in December 1978 and took 570,000 yen from her bank account. To conceal the murder, in Aki, Kochi Prefecture, in April 1980, he killed a bar hostess who helped him murder the woman. In January 1981, he killed his father-in-law in Aki and took 230,000 yen. His capital punishment was finalized in 1999.
Hidaka, a taxi driver, strangled a 16-year-old girl in his car, took 45,000 yen from her and dumped her body in Hiroshima in April 1996.
Likewise, he killed three other women, aged 23 to 45, between August and September that year. His penalty was finalized in 2000.
The Justice Ministry released a short statement confirming the four executions but did not disclose the victims' names or other details, citing government policy.
Amnesty International Japan got the detailed information about the inmates and distributed it to media.
Lawmakers and opponents of capital punishment were quick to react against Nagase's controversial decision.
"I am very disappointed that executions took place," Social Democratic Party leader Mizuho Fukushima told a Tokyo news conference, adding she had just met with Nagase on Dec. 19 and had urged him not to approve any executions.
"The death sentences were carried out in a rush and no prior announcements were made," she said, criticizing the usual procedure.
Nobuto Hosaka of the SDP denounced the hangings, claiming Fujinami and Akiyama were in the process of appealing for a retrial.
"It's Christmas, a special day even for those who are not Christians. I can't understand why they chose to carry out the executions," he said.
Pointing out that the hangings took place less than a week after the extraordinary Diet session closed, Hosaka suggested Nagase acted during the legislative recess to avoid coming under questioning by opposing politicians.
"I realize a majority of Japanese support the death penalty, but that is why there needs to be more debate on the issue," Hosaka said.
Makoto Teranaka, secretary general of Amnesty International Japan, also voiced dismay.
"We had been asking the Justice Ministry not to carry out the death penalty," he said of Amnesty's efforts to get capital punishment banned.
Teranaka suggested Nagase merely didn't want to be the one to break the unbroken record of carrying out at least one hanging every calendar year since 1993.
Nagase made no statement Monday, but his past remarks regarding capital punishment hinted his advocacy.
"I understand there have been voices against the death penalty," Nagase said during his inaugural news conference after accepting his portfolio in September, adding his support for capital punishment in light of the "feelings of the victims and for maintaining order in society."
The Criminal Procedure Law states that an execution must take place within six months after a death sentence is finalized, but Nagase's predecessor, Seiken Sugiura, a devout Buddhist, did not sign any death warrants during his 11-month stint as justice minister.
With the four hangings, 94 prisoners remain on death row, awaiting the execution order, which only the minister can issue.
Japan and the U.S. remain the only major industrialized nations that have capital punishment.
Information from Kyodo added