Japan: 40 years on death row

After four decades awaiting execution, a recent court development offers hope of retrial for Masaru Okunishi.An evening in March 1961, in the central Japanese village of Kuzuo: Masaru Okunishi, a farmer in his mid- thirties, attended a meeting at a local community centre.Among those gathered that night at the community centre were Okunishi’s  wife – and his mistress.Wine was served to the women, which Masaru Okunishi had carried to the meeting. The men drank sake and everyone toasted to success for their further networking.But suddenly the evening started to go wrong. After a glass or two, Okunishi’s wife, his mistress and three other local women suddenly felt unwell. A doctor was frantically summoned, but the five women died shortly afterwards. Twelve other women were taken seriously ill.The next morning, the farmer was brought to the local police station. No lawyer was present during five days of intense interrogation and by the early morning on 3 April the police had forcibly extracted a confession. Okunishi was formally charged with the murder of the five women. Tests showed the wine was laced with agricultural chemicals, but no evidence was found proving that Okunishi had poisoned it. Masaru Okunishi later retracted his confession, saying he was forced to confess. In 1964, the Tsu District Court acquitted Okunishi, citing a lack of evidence. But the prosecution appealed the verdict. The Nagoya High Court revoked the lower court decision and sentenced him to death in 1969 – a decision upheld by the Supreme Court in 1972.Today, Okunishi is in solitary confinement in a detention centre in the central Japanese city of Nagoya. Now in his eighties, he has spent more than 45 years in custody, 40 of these on death row. He has had six appeals for a retrial rejected. In April 2005, the Nagoya High Court decided to reopen the trial, citing new evidence that could prove his innocence.However, following a challenge brought by the prosecution the Nagoya High Court reversed its decision in December 2006. The Supreme Court then referred the case back to the Nagoya High Court, which ordered testing of the chemical evidence in October 2011 and is expected to rule in relation to the request for retrial. If the court opts for a retrial, Okunishi’s chances of acquittal are good, says Kazuko Ito, his lawyer of 17 years, speaking to Amnesty International from Tokyo.VindicationIto, who is also the Secretary General of the Japanese NGO Human Rights Now, believes Okunishi’s case is typical of an innocent individual caught up in Japan’s flawed justice system. “He was taken into custody for 49 hours without sufficient sleep or rest. Those are harsh conditions. He was forced to confess and that confession is the only evidence against him,” she says.Several death row inmates in Japan were allegedly forced to “confess” to a crime during police interrogations. Despite this, only four convicted death row inmates have been retried and freed in Japan.Japan’s criminal justice system is notoriously slow and the majority of prisoners sentenced to death are condemned to spend the rest of their time under inhumane conditions. As of 5 March, 132 prisoners were on death row in Japan – all are kept in solitary confinement.  A number of prisoners reportedly survive the isolation through reliance on sleeping pills and many suffer from mental disabilities due to the conditions under which they are detained.So how has Okunishi managed to stay sane?“He’s a very strong person,” said Ito.“He’s been fighting for many years and his raison d’être is to vindicate himself. His determination gives him a reason to live,“ she said.He receives frequent visits from his younger sister but his children have had little opportunity to visit him in prison.But she remains optimistic that Okunishi could be acquitted soon.“The most heinous crime is the execution of innocent people. You have to prevent such crimes of injustice, that’s why I decided to take up this case,” she said.Studying the death penaltyNo executions were carried out in Japan in 2011, the first execution-free year since 1992. In 2010, former Justice Minister Keiko Chiba set up a study group within the Ministry of Justice to assess the death penalty as a form of punishment. She also opened the execution chamber of the Tokyo Detention Centre to the media for the first time, to generate a nationwide debate on the death penalty.Former Justice Minister Hideo Hiraoka repeatedly refused to sign execution warrants. However, he was replaced in January this year by Toshio Ogawa, who has stated publicly that signing off on executions is part of the Justice Minister’s job description.Polls showed that public support for the death penalty was bolstered after the 1995 terrorist attack on the Tokyo subway.“People became very insecure after this incident and attitudes to crime became more and more severe. It’s very difficult to persuade Japanese people that the death penalty is a bad idea. If you kill someone, you deserve to die – that is the attitude of many ordinary people,” said Kazuko Ito.Examples from other parts of the world show that political leadership is essential to change the public perception of the death penalty and inform about the reality of capital punishment. This reality, in Japan and worldwide, includes the real inhumanity and arbitrariness of the penalty, the lack of superior deterrent effect compared with other punishments, and the impossibility of excluding error when imposing this irreversible sanction . More than two thirds of the countries in the world have considered this reality  and now reject the death penalty in law or practice.