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Death row, Japanese-style: "Cruel, inhuman and degrading"

Does Japan drive criminals insane? And execute them anyway? Amnesty International thinks so.

Sakae Menda, a former death row inmate who was declared innocent after 34 years of detention in Fukuoka Prison, wipes his eyes during a news conference in Tokyo in 2007. Amnesty International has recently condemned Japan's death penalty system as one of the most inhumane in the world, saying it drives inmates to psychosis. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)

TOKYO, Japan — Whether or not Iwao Hakamada committed the gruesome murders for which he was sentenced to hang is a matter of debate. What is certain is that the 73-year-old — the world’s longest-serving death row prisoner — has come to personify the cruelty inherent in Japan’s treatment of its most heinous criminals.

Hakamada, a former professional boxer, has spent 41 years on death row for a murder that even one of the three judges who sentenced him now believes he did not commit.

The possibility that an innocent man may have spent more than four decades in prison is not the only reason why Hakamada’s case has attracted the attention of human rights groups.

Amnesty International has accused Japan’s penal system of driving condemned men insane after subjecting them to, on average, at least seven years of “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment on death row.

The group’s 72-page report, published earlier this month, mounted a blistering critique of the idiosyncrasies that make capital punishment, Japan-style, among the most secretive and inhuman in the world.

Death row prisoners are locked away in solitary confinement, banned from talking to other inmates and permitted just two or three exercise periods a week. They are forbidden from moving around their cells, except to use the toilet, and meetings with lawyers and relatives are brief and infrequent, and always monitored.

Worst still is the uncertainty. Condemned men learn of the timing of their execution only hours before they are led away to the gallows. Their families are informed only after the fact, ostensibly so they can collect the body for cremation.

This, says Amnesty, constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment that sends many inmates into the depths of psychological despair.

“Each day could be their last, and the arrival of a prison officer with a death warrant would signal their execution within hours,” the report says. “Some live like this year after year, sometimes for decades.” Using interviews with relatives and lawyers, Amnesty says at least five death row inmates are mentally ill. Although international law and the Japanese criminal code ban the execution of prisoners deemed “insane,” the hangings continue.

“Japan’s death row system is driving prisoners into the depths of mental illness but they still being taken and hanged,” said Kate Allen, Amnesty’s U.K. director.

“The mental anguish of not knowing whether each day is to be your last is terrible enough. But Japan’s justice system also sees fit to bury its death row prisoners in the most punitive regime of silence, isolation and a sheer non-existence imaginable.”