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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011

Lawyer federation urges debate to end death penalty


TAKAMATSU, Kagawa Pref. — The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has come out in opposition to the death penalty, urging the government last week to immediately start public debate on its abolition and in the meantime suspend executions.

"The death penalty is an inhumane punishment as it claims precious life, and it robs those convicted of the potential to rehabilitate," the federation said in a declaration adopted at its annual two-day human rights meeting Friday in Takamatsu, Kagawa Prefecture.

Citing four postwar capital cases in which death-row inmates were acquitted in retrials, the lawyer group also said the death penalty system "always possesses a risk of miscarriage of justice, and there will be no mending if a wrongfully convicted person is executed."

"The abolition of the death penalty has become an unshakable international trend, and now is the time to launch a social debate about its termination," the declaration states.

While the JFBA has so far proposed that the government suspend executions until problems, including miscarriages of justice and the secrecy surrounding executions, are cleared up, the latest declaration "is a step toward its abolition," said Hideki Wakabayashi of Amnesty International Japan.

"It is notable the declaration refers to the backgrounds of crimes, such as poverty, and stresses the need to promote social reintegration of those who have committed crimes," the executive director of the human rights group said. "It will hold major significance for the campaign against the death penalty."

Until now, the federation had declined to show a clear stance on whether to terminate the death penalty partly out of consideration for its members who support it, but a lawyer involved in drafting the declaration said that "we compiled it based on a stance that it is 'desirable' to abolish capital punishment."

The declaration followed a symposium Oct. 6, the first day of the annual meeting, to discuss how to handle crimes now that ordinary people serving as lay judges are involved in trials in which the death sentence could be handed down.

At the symposium, Yumiko Yamaguchi, who sustained serious wounds during a fatal 2000 bus hijacking by a 17-year-old boy, said she thought when she was slashed by the assailant that "he must be hurt so seriously that he is forced to do such a thing."

Yamaguchi learned later the teen had refused to attend school after being bullied, much like her own daughter.

"The thing is that he is also a human being like us who is carrying various concerns," she said.

Another panelist, Masayoshi Taguchi, served as a lay judge last year in a trial for a person charged with negligence as a guardian resulting in death.

Sitting on the bench, Taguchi thought the defendant was "just an ordinary person who laughs and cries." He said he learned that the image of an accused person is sometimes distorted "through the filter of media reports."

Taguchi, part of a group of former lay judges, also said that one of its members "involved in handing down the death sentence once told me that citizen judges become perpetrators against the defendant as they lead the defendant to die. (The system) is irrational."

It was reported during the symposium that detention periods for convicts serving a life sentence are getting longer, meaning more are dying in prison.

According to data submitted to the symposium, among 14 people who served life terms and were paroled in 1990, eight were held for 20 years or less. But 20 years later, the number of lifers released was halved to seven and all of the releases came after more than 20 years behind bars.

As of 2010, 139 countries, or two-thirds of the world's nations, had abolished the death penalty by law or in practice. Fifty-eight still maintain it, of which 19 actually killed inmates in 2009 and 23 in 2010, the federation said.

Japan was urged by the Geneva-based Human Rights Committee to "favorably consider abolishing the death penalty and inform the public, as necessary, about the desirability of abolition" regardless of opinion polls.

Secrecy surrounding Japan's capital punishment system has also been strongly criticized, with the public unaware of procedures following the issuance of a death sentence.

The last execution was in July 2010 when then Justice Minister Keiko Chiba, a lawyer and ex-member of a group of lawmakers opposing the death penalty, approved two hangings. In an unusual move, she attended the executions and later let reporters view the Tokyo Detention House execution chamber in a bid to stir public debate over the death penalty.

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