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Saturday, Nov. 22, 2008

Paroled death-row inmate dies after decades-long fight for retrial

Staff writer

Kenjiro Ishii spent most of his life seeking a retrial. Still hoping for another court appearance, the paroled death-row inmate died on the morning of Nov. 7 at a hospital in Kumamoto Prefecture at age 91.

"I am mortified to think that Ishii did not live to win a retrial," said Ryuji Furukawa, whose family championed his cause for more than 40 years.

"It just made me so sad looking at him while he was still alive, feeling unwell. It made me wonder what kind of life it had been for him."

Branded along with Takeo Nishi as one of the ringleaders of a 1947 robbery-murder that came to be known as the Fukuoka Incident, Ishii was sentenced to death in 1956. In all, seven men were arrested for the shooting deaths of two clothing merchants — one Japanese and one Chinese — in the city of Fukuoka.

The time was just after World War II and Ishii, a former soldier, owned a gun. He admitted shooting the two men, but claimed it was in self-defense, not for robbery. But the courts didn't believe him.

After spending nearly 20 years on death row, Nishi was hanged on June 17, 1975. On the same day, Ishii, however, was given amnesty and his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.

To this day, no reason has been given for why the two men did not share the same fate.

"It was supposed to be the happiest day of my life," Ishii told The Japan Times in an interview in 2004. "Instead, Nishi was executed. A warden kindly told me Nishi's final words, which were: 'Ishii, you fight for both of us till the end.' And I promised myself that I would."

After spending a total of 42 years and seven months behind bars, Ishii was released on parole in 1989. He was then taken under the wing of Furukawa's father, the late Rev. Tairyu Furukawa, the founder of an independent Buddhist temple called Seimeizan Schweitzer Temple in Kumamoto Prefecture.

Tairyu first met Ishii and Nishi in 1952, when he was chaplain at the Fukuoka Detention Center.

The Furukawa family began campaigning for a retrial for Ishii and Nishi in 1961. But life for Ishii was not easy, Furukawa said.

"Ishii had no permanent home, was tossed around old people's homes and hospitals. . . . I remember him lamenting his lack of money, that he had no relatives to turn to, and that he was still on parole," Furukawa said. "He had gotten so weak that I just couldn't say 'Let's continue to fight' anymore."

Now that Ishii is dead, Furukawa, 48, said it will be difficult to carry on that fight. Retrials must be sought by the convict, or by a relative.

Furukawa said supporters must now find and convince a relative to continue Ishii's campaign.

"It is going to be very difficult to find someone and convince that person (to take action for Ishii) because in Japanese society, it is arduous for families of convicted criminals to survive," Furukawa said.

Even if someone is found, another barrier remains: Very few retrials are granted in Japan.

Since the war, only four death-row inmates, after decades behind bars, have been exonerated at retrial.

Furukawa, however, said he is hopeful that one day "our voices will be heard."

"Sixty-one years have passed since the Fukuoka Incident and so many people, those involved in the case and supporters, have suffered — and the principal cause was a sloppy trial," Furukawa said. "And I believe that by correcting the past mistake, we will be able to make sure that such a tragedy never occurs again."

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