Japan’s retro lurch back to judicial killing

“Too young to vote, drink or drive - but old enough to be killed”. A few years ago the campaign group The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers used to use this line. It was to try to stop the UK armed forces deploying under-18s into combat (they were then the only country in Europe doing this). The campaign worked. The UK stopped sending children to war.

Which came to mind today … as I read this story of how Japan is planning to execute a man called Takayuki Otsuki, convicted of a crime which took place when he was aged 18 years (and one month). International law prohibits use of the death penalty against such “juvenile offenders” and so Japan is strictly speaking within its rights (just) to execute this man (who has been on death row for more than a decade and is now aged 31). But is it right to do so?

No. Capital punishment is a human rights violation in its own right. You can’t have an “acceptable” form of judicial killing - it’s all cruel and inhuman.

Japan is in the news today for having just carried out three executions. Anyone who’s read the Amnesty report ‘Hanging by a thread’ on Japan’s death penalty system will know how utterly dehumanising and disgusting it is. I’ve blogged about it before (see here and here). Basically, Japan’s death row is a place of extremes - talking is forbidden, inmates are not allowed to make eye contact with the guards, and, most excruciatingly, prisoners in Japan are not normally informed of their own execution until the morning of the hanging itself. Unsurprisingly, many death row prisoners have developed severe mentally health problems while … waiting to die.

Japan’s lunge backwards with these executions is described by Amnesty as a “retrograde step”, and yes it’s retro in all the wrong ways. Until yesterday Japan hadn’t executed anyone for approaching two years and 2011 was the country’s first execution-free year for nearly two decades. Now it’s (re-)joined company with a small band of hardcore countries bucking the strong international trend toward abolition, a coterie including China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. (It also includes the USA of course. Read the actor - and New York resident - Paul Bettany's interesting article on capital punishment).

With excellent technology and design achievements under its belt Japan’s got a reputation for being fearlessly “futuristic”, but on capital punishment it’s woefully out of date. Please support the Amnesty campaign calling on Japan’s justice minister Toshio Ogawa to refrain from signing any more death warrants and asking him to support moves toward abolition in Japan.

Speaking of execution-free years …. India, which still retains the death penalty, hasn’t carried out an execution since 2004 (and the one before that was in 1998). But it’s been getting close with the case of self-confessed murderer Balwant Singh Rajoana. With a “mercy petition” now before India’s president, Pratibha Patil, it might be that Rajoana’s execution can still be averted. I hope so. If this huge and influential country were to lurch back toward judicial killing it would be a grim day for the region (and indeed the world).

Final thought: in Japan you're not fully recognised as an adult until you’re 20 (teenagers can’t smoke, drink or vote). Which makes me wonder: why would the authorities think it’s OK to execute the 18-year-old offender Takayuki Otsuki? In fact, why are they executing anybody?

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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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