If you can remember 1968 you werent really there

Memories are notoriously slippery. For instance. Being a (relatively) old codger, I think I can remember the first moon landing.

I was five. And I recall watching the not-very-clear B&W images on our 60s TV (fat body, spindly legs). What I remember (or think I remember) is slightly spooky voices coming through between long delays and static-y telecomms interference. And the whole atmosphere being incredibly stilted. More HG Wells than James Cameron.

But … chances are I’m not really remembering this at all, just recalling iconic images played back on the news ever since. I probably did watch it the first time – it was an international event after all; but I reckon my infant’s memories got swiped by the swoonsome excitement of whether we’d get a 99 Flake from the ice-cream van that July night.

Interesting, eh? Well it’s relevant (kind of!) because a case Amnesty’s currently working on involves a man who is certainly old enough to remember the moon landing but definitely won’t have watched it … because he was in prison. Hakamada Iwao was sentenced to death in 1968 and was already languishing on death row in Tokyo’s Detention House prison when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969. Incredibly, Hakamada is still in prison 42 years later and is still facing execution.

(For the record, Hakamada couldn’t have witnessed the moon landing on a prison TV because Japan’s death row prisoners are forbidden TVs. Just as they’re forbidden from taking to other inmates, from moving around in their cells or making eye contact with their guards. More details here).

All this, as well as not even being told the date of their impending execution, has driven many prisoners like Hakamada into the throes of mental illness – something I’ve blogged on before. It gets worse. Japan’s death row prisoners endure these suspended-animation-type conditions for decades. Hakamada’s 42 years is, though, the current record. It’s his birthday (his 74th) today, and Amnesty’s going to the Japanese embassy in London to call for him to get a retrial (on top of everything else his original trial was unfair) or for him to be released.

I find the sheer duration of suffering here incomprehensible. It puts even the case of John Heibner in the shade (described by the Guardian yesterday as the UK’s “longest miscarriage of justice”). And it eclipses even the bewildering "Angola 3" case, today's Guardian G2 cover story.

To get some perspective on this – apart from Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the stars and stripes in the lunar dust, here are a few other things that hadn’t happened when Hakamada was sentenced to death: Woodstock, Nixon becoming US president; UK troop deployment to Northern Ireland; Col Qaddaffi coming to power; De Gaulle stepping down as French president; Concorde’s maiden flight; the Kray twins’ murder conviction; the Beatles splitting up.

At this point it’s tempting to wheel out the old joke about how if you can remember the sixties you weren’t actually there (like the Todd Haynes film about Bob Dylan: I’m Not There). The point though is that keeping anyone on death row for this long is so inhumane as to defy words. Amnesty is calling for Japan to impose a moratorium on the death penalty. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, this would be one small step for Japan, but one giant leap for mankind. 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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