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Gov't must shed more light on Japan's secret executions following AUM hangings

The Tokyo Detention Center building is seen from a Mainichi Shimbun helicopter in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward, on Dec. 7, 2011. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Executions in Japan are shrouded in secrecy, and even death-row inmates themselves are not informed of when they will be executed until the morning of their hanging. The only information that the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) releases after an execution is the name of the person who was executed, the crime for which the person was executed, and the place where the execution took place.

The reason why a particular death-row inmate was chosen to be executed on a certain day also remains sealed -- a practice the MOJ adhered to in the unprecedented mass execution of 13 people, all former AUM Shinrikyo cult members, in a single month.

It is common for accomplices placed on death row to be executed on the same day as each other. But because of the large number of accomplices in this case, it was not feasible to execute all 13 on the same day, forcing the executions to be split into two lots: seven people on July 6 and six people on July 26. This gap between the two execution dates essentially served as prior notification to the latter group that their executions were imminent, which is information that those on death-row normally do not receive.

The MOJ's past tendency to avoid executions of death-row inmates who have pending requests for retrials has seen a shift as well. Last year, the MOJ executed three death-row inmates who had appealed multiple times for a retrial, and who each had another request pending. Regarding the fact that 80 percent of death-row inmates are appealing for retrials, a senior MOJ official says, "There are many cases in which death-row inmates repeatedly request retrials hoping for a stay of execution," but among the 13 ex-AUM members who were executed this month, some were waiting on responses to their first retrial appeal.

Asked about these issues at the press conferences in which Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa announced the executions, the minister refused to provide an explanation, saying at a July 6 press conference, "There's a risk of offending those who await executions (if I were to respond)."

However, if we are to further our debate on the death penalty, such as how the system, including executions, is implemented, the restricted scope of information that is released to the public must be reconsidered.

Capital punishment has widespread support from the public, but the recent spate of executions has left us with the renewed impression that the death penalty is the ultimate exercise of power by the state. Furthermore, we have forever lost the opportunity to hear testimony from former top AUM officials who were instrumental in crimes committed by the cult. To prevent the most harrowing crimes of the Heisei era from being forgotten, we must make the effort to pass down the lessons we have learned to the next generation.

(Japanese original by Takeshi Wada, City News Department)

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