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Executions raise concerns about death penalty for minors, inmates requesting retrials

The recent execution of two death row inmates has raised questions about carrying out capital punishment on offenders who were minors at the time of their crimes and those who are requesting retrials.

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa announced that inmates Teruhiko Seki, 44, and Kiyoshi Matsui, 69, were hanged at the Tokyo Detention Center on Dec. 19. Both men were in the process of requesting retrials, and Seki, who was 19 when he killed four people, became the first death row inmate convicted as a minor to be executed by the state in roughly 20 years.

The Juvenile Act, which stresses the importance of rehabilitating minors who are still in the midst of personality development, prohibits the death sentence for persons who were under the age of 18 at the time the crime was committed. However, minors aged 18 and 19 can receive a sentence of capital punishment.

Since 1990, when the death penalty was handed down to Norio Nagayama, who was a minor when he fatally shot four people in the late 1960s, capital punishment has been handed down to a total of six persons who were minors at the time of their crimes, including Seki. Among them is a case in which sentencing by lay judges was upheld by the Supreme Court.

Currently, lowering the applicable age of the Juvenile Act to 18 and younger is being debated in the Legislative Council of the Ministry of Justice, an advisory body to the justice minister. In carrying out the execution of Seki, it can be said that the ministry showed the opinion that the death penalty is applicable even to those who were minors at the time of the crime if the severity of their crime is deemed heinous enough, and may have an effect on the deliberations of the legislative council.

The other factor that set the two executed inmates apart from other cases is that they both had requested retrials. While the ministry had tended to avoid executing death row inmates in the process of seeking retrials, these executions continue in the footsteps of former Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda, who ordered the execution of two inmates -- one having demanded a retrial -- in July of this year, showing a reversal of the unwritten policy.

This perhaps comes from the ministry's uneasiness that over 70 percent of death row inmates are in the process of asking for a retrial. Still, there have been four death row inmates who have been found not guilty during retrials in the postwar period, and the ministry cannot afford to regard this reality lightly.

These latest actions could be taken as the ministry's efforts to review the cautious stance it has taken toward capital punishment. Until recently, the ministry has imposed restrictions on itself, such as not executing people who were minors at the time of the offense or inmates who are seeking retrials. If the ministry is to take this new direction, then it certainly needs to gain understanding from the citizens of Japan. To do so, the Justice Ministry needs to provide explanations and disclose information on its decisions for the latest executions.

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