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Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010

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Last stand: The trapdoor holds center position in the gallows chamber at the Tokyo Detention House. Three officials hit the three buttons (below) simultaneously to open the door. KYODO PHOTOS

Execution chamber opened to reporters

Chiba hopes gallows glimpse spurs debate


Staff writer

The Tokyo Detention House opened its execution chamber to the media Friday, giving the public its first peek at the place where death-row inmates are hanged.

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The Justice Ministry organized the tour at the instructions of Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, who is trying to generate public debate on the death penalty. Despite being a longtime opponent of capital punishment, Chiba authorized the executions of two inmates in July and witnessed them in person.

"I decided to show the execution chamber because I thought it would give the public something to discuss about the death penalty," Chiba told reporters after the media tour.

Officials of the detention house and the ministry escorted some 20 reporters to the execution chamber, which is part of a larger structure consisting of a chaplain chamber, front chamber, button chamber and attendant chamber.

Reporters were first briefed in a conference room and then loaded onto a small, curtained bus for the trip to the execution chamber. Reporters were banned from speaking and from bringing anything other than pen and notebook.

Death-row inmates are only notified on the morning of their hanging and executed shortly afterward. The first stop is the chaplain chamber, Justice Ministry Correction Bureau official Satoshi Tomiyama said.

In the chaplain chamber, inmates can receive services from a chaplain appointed by the detention house. The room has a Buddhist altar, but Christian and Shinto arrangements can also be made upon request, Tomiyama said. Tea, fruit or sweets are also offered in the room, he said.

News photo
A closeup photo shows a pulley from which the condemned inmate is hung from the execution chamber's ceiling. A detention house official said the rope is only installed before executions.

Then they are escorted to the front chamber, where they are given a last chance to speak with the chaplain.

It is in the front chamber where the chief of the detention house formally announces the execution. Inmates are then blindfolded, handcuffed in front and escorted to the execution chamber.

A curtain is the only thing that separates the front and execution chambers, but it is usually closed, and inmates are unable to see the execution chamber and the rope dangling from the ceiling pulley and hooked to the floor.

There was no rope visible Friday because "it is installed only when execution is carried out," Tomiyama said.

In the execution chamber, the inmate's legs are tied, the noose is tightened and the condemned stands on a trap door.

Then three officials enter a side room where there are three buttons. They push them at the same time so they don't know which one actually springs the trapdoor.

In the attendant chamber, where Chiba saw the July hangings, officials view the execution chamber and the room below.

In five minutes after a doctor confirms death, the corpse is lowered and put in a coffin.


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