Seizing the momentum

By Shiromi Pinto

Hakamada Iwao spent 46 years on death row before his release in March. For Wakabayashi Hideki, Director of Amnesty International Japan, it was an incredible moment, but the fight isn’t over yet.

Wakabayashi Hideki remembers the exact moment when he heard the news of Hakamada Iwao’s release.

“I was at a press conference,” he says. “It was the launch of Amnesty’s 2013 report on the death penalty – the afternoon of 27 March 2014.”

Hakamada Iwao and Su Chien-ho meet in Tokyo on 15 November at a symposium about torture in Asia organised by AI Japan. Hakamada Iwao spent more than 45 years on death row. He was sentenced to death in 1968 after an unfair trial. Su Chien-ho (蘇建和), spent 11 years on death row before being released on appeal and finally cleared by the Taiwan High Court in 2011 after a 21-year struggle to clear his name.

He was in Japan’s houses of parliament, surrounded by a crowd of journalists. “Then, one reporter raised her hand and asked a question,” recalls Hideki.

While doing so, she mentioned that Hakamada had just been released.

Hideki was caught off guard: “I was astonished – it was so beyond our expectations that I couldn’t believe what she was saying.”

Later, he saw Hakamada on the television news. “He was walking, unaided, out of the detention centre,” he says. “I just could not believe what I was seeing. It was like a dream.”

Hakamada had been on death row for 46 years before the local court finally granted him a re-trial because of flaws in his original trial. Sentenced to death in 1968, he is believed to be the longest-serving death row inmate in the world. 

Inspired to act

Hideki has been campaigning on Hakamada’s behalf since he became Director of Amnesty International Japan in 2011.

“When I found out how he had been wrongly treated by the police, the prosecutors and the courts, I was shocked and angered,” he says. “I trusted those officials before I came to work for Amnesty. But I felt almost betrayed when I realised what had happened. Betrayed, because those police and prosecutors are supposed to search for the truth for the people of Japan.”

It was through his admiration for Hakamada’s sister, Hideko, that Hideki became personally involved in the case.

“Hideko is such a quiet and strong leader,” he says. “She can move people. But she, too, is a victim of this situation. It took 10 years for her to begin to get even a little support. For the past 48 years, she supported her brother. She supported him her entire life.”

“Because Hideko appreciates Amnesty’s work, I am able to speak to her,” he continues, “even though she is very busy and elderly. We have mutual respect for each other.”

46 years in solitary

In May, Hideki met Hakamada for the first time when the former boxer, now aged 78, was given an honorary world champion boxing belt.

“Before the ceremony, I tried to talk to him, but I could not communicate with him at all,” says Hideki. “He has suffered severe psychological hardship, because he has lived under the threat of execution for 46 years in solitary confinement. I was shocked to see what this had done to him physically and mentally.”

While in prison, Hakamada was not allowed outside. He could exercise only in a small area within the detention building itself. Hideki has seen these spaces first hand.

“I was able to view a solitary confinement room and places of exercise,” he says. “The exercise ‘room’ was on the roof. It was 5m long by 2m wide. The prisoner would go back and forth, watched by a guard, like an animal in a zoo.”

Such was the impact of decades in isolation that even when he finally met his sister, Hideko, Hakamada didn’t recognize her.

Some of the many letters sent to Hakamada Iwao by Amnesty supporters while he was on death row. © Amnesty International

Six boxes of letters

Among the possessions that went home with Hakamada were six boxes of letters, many from Amnesty supporters. But being on death row, Hakamada was not allowed to receive them.

Overwhelmed by his release, he has still not read them. But for his sister, Hideko, these letters are a source of great encouragement.

Without Hideko, now aged 80, Hakamada’s campaign would never have reached the public eye. But, says his sister, without Amnesty, Hakamada’s case would never have been disseminated across the globe, and the decision to grant him the re-trial that led to his conditional release would not have happened without the efforts of Amnesty supporters.

For Hideki, who has led the campaign for Hakamada within Amnesty, the letters mean a lot.

“This kind of solidarity is vital,” he says, “not just for the victims, but those who support them. Letters from all over the world arrived at the detention centre where Hakamada was held every day. It’s a sign that he has global support.”

Hakamada Iwao on his way home for the first time in 48 years, following his release from the Tokyo Detention Center, 27 May 2014. © Amnesty International

The fight isn’t over yet, though. Hakamada could go back to jail if his re-trial is unsuccessful. And then there is the question of whether Hakamada’s case has turned the public against the death penalty.

“Everybody says that miscarriages of justice are awfully wrong and we should prevent them,” says Hideki. “But I have not seen any upsurge in the debate against the death penalty. We have to do our best to seize the momentum created by Hakamada’s case to talk about the death penalty, and move public opinion towards abolition.”

Hakamada Iwao’s fight for a fair trial continues. Amnesty in Japan have launched this petition to grant him an immediate retrial. Act now, help make sure Hakamada is a free man once and for all. 

 Names appear in the traditional Japanese style, with the last name first.

  1. Anna Enström says:

    Please let this man live the rest of his life in fredom. He has suffered enough! Give him the greatest gift of all: his life.<3