Urgent Action Calling for a Stay of Executions in Japan

Dear Minister,

In July 2009, in its package of policies called INDEX 2009, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) declared: “Regarding the death penalty, looking at international trends such as the EU’s membership policy, which requires abolition of the death penalty, we will continue to discuss widely, both inside and outside the Diet, not only whether to retain or abolish the death penalty but also a stay of executions in the meantime, and other issues such as prior notification of executions, the execution method, and so on.” Many citizens hoped for the realization of the policies expressed in the INDEX, and then the DPJ assumed power.

To have discussions on “a stay of executions in the meantime” is one of the DPJ’s policies. However, since Justice Minister Toshio Ogawa took office, he has clearly denied the possibility of continuing the present stay of executions, by claiming that ordering an execution is the Justice Minister’s responsibility, and he has repeatedly shown his intention to approve executions during his term as Minister.

Different from other punishments, the execution of the death penalty must by law be authorized by the Justice Minister because capital punishment, which is irreversible once it has been carried out, requires especially careful consideration. The Justice Minister is allowed to make a cautious and political decision on the execution issue in the direction of not signing an execution warrant, taking into account various factors, including the re-examination of criminal records, the individual circumstances of inmates, and national or international tendencies.

But Minister Ogawa’s remarks can be interpreted as suggesting that execution is a high priority. Indeed, it is not too much to say that he seems ready to abdicate his job responsibility by abandoning the careful and deliberate approach to executions.

In the past, some executions are suspected to have been wrongly carried out because justice ministers failed to undertake careful consideration. Among those who were executed while they were preparing for re-trial requests was an inmate whose innocence could have been made clear by DNA tests. And while the Criminal Procedure Code prohibits the execution of insane inmates, there are quite a number of people on death row who are seriously mentally ill. These people cannot take legal actions (such as a request for re-trial), nor can they make the argument that they are insane. Despite these realities, we cannot avoid the possibility of wrongful executions because Japan does not have a reliable system for examining the mental conditions of death row inmates. How can a Justice Minister take responsibility for unlawful executions?

The death penalty deprives persons of the right to life, the most fundamental and important human right. Japan has been continuously urged by United Nations bodies (such as the Human Rights Committee) and other organs to introduce a moratorium on executions and to take steps toward abolition of the death penalty.

We ask you, Minister Ogawa, to use the authority of his position to stay executions and to promote rational discussion of Japan’s death penalty system. Towards this end, we also ask you to establish an open panel consisting of specialists in various areas from outside the Ministry of Justice, so that the panel can pave the way to the debate in the Diet on this issue.

Citizens calling for a stay of executions

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