World's 'longest-serving' death row inmate granted retrial in Japan

A man believed to be the world's longest-serving death row inmate was Thursday granted a retrial in Japan over multiple murders in 1966, decades after doubts emerged about his guilt.

Shizuoka District Court decided to "start the retrial over the case" of Iwao Hakamada, 78, who was convicted for the grisly murder of his boss and the man's family, a court official said.

Delivering his ruling, presiding judge Hiroaki Murayama cited possible planting of evidence by investigators to win a conviction as they sought to bring closure to a crime that shocked the country.

"There is possibility that (key pieces of) evidence have been fabricated by investigative bodies," Murayama said in his decision, according to Jiji Press.

The judge also ordered Hakamada's release, saying continued confinement "goes against justice".

Apart from the United States, Japan is the only major industrialised democracy to carry out capital punishment, a practice that has led to repeated protests from European governments and human rights groups.

Hakamada is the sixth person since the end of World War II to receive a retrial after having a death sentence confirmed, and his case will bolster opponents of capital punishment.

Back in 1966, Hakamada initially denied accusations that he robbed and killed his boss, the man's wife and two children before setting their house ablaze.

But the former boxer, who worked for a bean paste maker, later confessed following what he claimed was a brutal police interrogation that included beatings.

He retracted his confession but to no avail. The supreme court confirmed his death sentence in 1980.

- Doubts over evidence -

Prosecutors and courts had used blood-stained clothes, which emerged a year after the crime and his arrest, as key evidence to convict Hakamada.

The clothes did not fit him, his supporters said. The blood stains appeared too vivid for evidence that was discovered a year after the crime. Later DNA tests found no link between Hakamada, the clothes and the blood stains, his supporters said.

But the now-frail Hakamada has remained in solitary confinement on death row, regardless.

His supporters and some lawyers, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, have loudly voiced their doubts about evidence, the police investigations and the judicial logic that led to the conviction.

Even one of the judges who originally sentenced Hakamada to death in 1968 has said he was never convinced of the man's guilt but could not sway his judicial colleagues who out-voted him.

Japan has a conviction rate of around 99 percent and claims of heavy-handed police interrogations persist under a long-held belief that a confession is the gold standard of guilt.

Hakamada's sister Hideko, 81, who has passionately campaigned for a retrial for decades, thanked dozens of supporters who gathered in front of the court house.

"Everyone, really, really thank you," she said through a loud speaker in front of hordes of journalists and supporters.

"This happened thanks to all of you who helped us. I am just so happy."

Hakamada seems to have developed psychological illnesses after decades in solitary confinement, Hideko told AFP in an interview last year.

"What I am worried about most is Iwao's health. If you put someone in jail for 47 years, it's too much to expect them to stay sane," Hideko said in the interview.

Hideko said Iwao seems to be losing his mental capacity, that he "talks nonsense" and refuses monthly visits from his sister.

hih-mis-hg/pj