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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.

Lawyers for Hakamada, who was sentenced in 1968 for murdering a family of four, say that decades of isolation and fear have left their client in a state of “institutional psychosis.”

As the only G7 countries to retain the death penalty, Japan and the United States have resisted the trend toward its abolition or non-use in other countries, including those bastions of human rights, Cambodia and Rwanda. (The U.S., of course, has been criticized worldwide for its death penalty record. On Sept. 15 the planned execution in Ohio of a convicted rapist-murderer was rescheduled after technicians were unable to inject him with lethal drugs.)

Between January 2006 and January this year, Japan hanged 32 men, including five in their 70s, according to campaigners. Last year the number of executions reached 15, the highest for more than 30 years.

But abolition may now be a step closer following the election last month of the center-left Democratic Party of Japan.

The new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has raised hopes of a change in policy with the appointment as justice minister of Keiko Chiba, a former member of the Japan Socialist Party and a vocal opponent of capital punishment.

Chiba has so far stopped short of declaring a moratorium, saying only that she would “handle each case with caution” — an indication, observers say, that Japan will not send anyone to the gallows in the foreseeable future.

Yet if Chiba exercises her ministerial prerogative not to sign execution orders for any of Japan’s 102 death row prisoners, she will do so in defiance of popular opinion. A 2005 poll found that more than 80 percent of Japanese people supported capital punishment, partly in response to the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, in which 12 people died and thousands were injured.

Yet it would not be the first time that Japan has toyed with de facto abolition. No executions took place between 1989 and 1993, and for 15 months from October 2005 because justice ministers refused to sign execution orders.

After unsuccessful appeals and calls for a retrial, Hakamada’s attempts to prove his innocence appear to have run their course, although his lawyers say they haven’t given up hope.

If he is able to comprehend his circumstances – unlikely as that seems given his mental state of health – he may at least come to realize that the sound of a guard approaching his cell in the morning no longer means he may have only hours to live.