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Saturday, June 9, 2012

Death penalty foes gather in Tokyo to push for abolition

Staff writer

While the global trend is toward abolishing or putting a moratorium on capital punishment, Japan remains a stalwart practitioner, leaving it and the United States the only two countries in the Group of Seven major industrialized nations where executions still take place.

With international pressure growing against Japan to scrap the system, abolitionists, scholars, lawmakers and law enforcement officers from Japan, Norway and the U.S. recently gathered in Tokyo to spread their message that capital punishment neither prevents crime nor comforts the victimized.

Executions instead violate the most basic of human rights, as the death penalty is fundamentally murder by the state that removes any chance for exoneration, the abolitionists said.

At the international symposium June 1 organized by Aoyama Gakuin University, the panelists, including ex-justice ministers from Japan and Norway, reviewed and compared the judicial and social responses to violent crimes in their countries.

Both have low crime rates and both have suffered indiscriminate terrorism. Japan in March 1995 saw the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway by Aum Shinrikyo that left 13 people dead and thousands injured. Norway last July suffered its worst crime spree since World War II when Anders Behring Breivik detonated a bomb within Regjeringskvartalet, the executive government quarter, and two hours later went on rampage at a youth camp, killing 77 people in total.

Even though these crimes were both brutal, the panelists said each nation's public and judicial systems reacted to and handled them in almost completely opposite fashions.

Aum founder Shoko Asahara and 12 senior cultists have been sentenced to hang for the cult's heinous crimes and the Supreme Court has finalized the verdicts.

In Norway, the most Breivik will likely get is 21 years in prison with the possibility of indefinite extension for as long as he is seen as a danger to society. Norway ended capital punishment for civilian crimes in 1902 and banned the practice completely in 1979 after briefly executing World War II Nazi collaborators.

While Breivik himself has called for reintroduction of the death penalty at his ongoing trial, Norwegian experts said there is little debate about reinstating the system as capital punishment is not an issue for most Norwegians, including his surviving victims and the families of the slain.

"The debates have centered on how we could have prevented such an act in the first place and what went wrong," said Knut Storbeget, who was Norway's minister of justice and police at the time of the massacre.

In comparison, experts pointed out that the Aum attacks pushed Japan toward more punitive actions and accelerated the execution of death sentences rather than providing an opportunity to review the effectiveness of severe measures for such destructive crimes.

Despite a decreasing crime rate and international calls to abolish capital punishment, 85.6 percent of Japanese respondents in a 2010 survey by the Cabinet Office said they want to keep capital punishment.

Former Japanese justice ministers who participated in the discussion expressed concern how the society has yet to engage in serious debate on the matter.

"Capital punishment contradicts the notion by the government that citizens must not kill anybody," said lawyer Seiken Sugiura, a former Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker who did not sign off on any executions during his time as justice minister in the Junichiro Koizumi administration, saying it went against his religious beliefs.

"But I am worried that Japan is going to be the last country to abolish it," said Sugiura, who came under fire by critics who said he should not have accepted the Cabinet position if he didn't intend to fulfill his responsibility of signing death warrants.

Some panelists pointed out that part of the reason behind the lack of discussion in Japan is a lack of information and understanding about capital punishment itself. The government is notorious for withholding information on executions as officials believe too much disclosure would lead to more scrutiny of the system, and therefore more criticism and less public support to keep it going, they said.

"We need an extensive debate on this issue, but there is little information available," said Hideo Hiraoka, a Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker who served as justice minister under Yoshihiko Noda and also did not send death-row inmates to the gallows. "Japanese people have no way to know what kind of condition Asahara is in. They do not know the global trend of abolishing capital punishment."

David Johnson, a professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who is currently researching Japan's capital punishment system, cited a lack of leadership.

"It is a failure of leadership and failure to consider publicly," he said. "Japanese have to think about what capital punishment does to them rather than what it does for them."

Hanging the 13 Aum members without clearly understanding why the cult committed such crimes may not prevent similar crimes, Johnson said.

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