Japan: Mentally ill prisoners face execution-new report

* World’s longest-serving death row prisoner among those driven into mental illness by extreme prison regime

* Prisoners only find out on the morning that execution is to take place that day

* ‘There are lots of ladies in the world, lots of animals … Elephants, dragons. Everyone is living and feeling something. No way will I die’ - Japanese death row prisoner

* Act now for Hakamada Iwao

Numerous prisoners on death row in Japan have been driven into mental illness by extremely harsh conditions yet almost no safeguards exist to prevent them still being executed in contravention of international law, said Amnesty International today (10 September).

Publishing a 72-page report - Hanging By A Thread: Mental Health And The Death Penalty in Japan - Amnesty called on the recently-elected Japanese government to impose an immediate moratorium on all further executions in the country. Japan is one of the few highly industrialised countries in the world still to retain capital punishment and last year it executed 15 prisoners, the highest number in the country for decades and one of the highest anywhere in the world.

102 prisoners are currently facing execution in Japan, with ages ranging from 26 to very elderly inmates (one is 85). Amnesty’s report reveals that there is considerable evidence of prisoners succumbing to very serious mental illnesses due to prolonged periods facing execution in extremely harsh conditions. There are very few independent medico-legal assessments of even long-term death row prisoners in Japan and no inmate has ever been taken off death row in Japan for reasons of mental illness.

Death row prisoners in Japan do not know when they will be executed until the actual morning of the execution. Meanwhile prisoners are largely confined to isolation cells - they are not allowed to move around in their cells, but must remain seated at all times - and are prohibited from talking to other inmates or even making eye contact with guards. Televisions are forbidden, visits are limited and often denied, and very little contact with the outside world is permitted.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

“Japan’s death row system is driving prisoners into the depths of mental illness but they are still being taken and hanged at only hours’ notice in an utterly cruel fashion.

“The mental anguish of not knowing whether each day is to be your last on earth is terrible enough, but Japan’s justice system also sees fit to bury its death row prisoners in the most punitive regime of silence, isolation and sheer non-existence imaginable.

“Rather than persist with a shameful capital punishment system the new Japanese government should immediately impose a moratorium on all further executions. Reforms to Japan’s deeply flawed police interrogation system are also urgently needed, but halting executions must be the immediate priority.”

Under Japan’s legal system criminal suspects may be held without legal representation in police detention (daiyo kangoku) for up to 23 days. In one case highlighted by Amnesty’s report, Hakamada Iwao 73, a former professional boxer who has now been on death row for 41 years (thought to be longer than any other person in the world), was arrested and questioned for 20 days without a lawyer. Mr Hakamada who has always maintained his innocence - and has even later won support in this by a judge from his original trial - was found guilty of murder based partly on allegedly coerced confessions made during his police detention.

For around 30 years Mr Hakamada has exhibited signs of mental illness on death row. Yet, despite a long history of disordered behaviour, including years of sending letters to his sister described as “strange weird nonsensical” and also refusing all visits for 12 years, Mr Hakamada was only given short expert medical assessments as recently as 2007 and 2008. In one of these he was asked if he understood what an execution was. He replied:

“The wisdom never dies. On that kind of wisdom, this is wisdom. It never dies. There are lots of ladies in the world, lots of animals. Everyone is living and feeling something. Elephants, dragons. No way will I die … I won’t die. There’s no one who will die. Somewhere around God you can live.”

Hakamada has recently been described as suffering from “institutional psychosis” by one psychiatrist and as being in a ”state of insanity” by another. Other clearly delusional death row prisoners have talked of being dominated by computers and radio waves, of having purple blood, of having killed a “cyborg” or a “doll” rather than a human being, and of having received “prize money” from the Japanese Prime Minister, the US President and “a famous US film actress”. Another prisoner - Muramatsu Sei-ichiro, who has been on death row since 1985 - has been described by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations as “suffering from schizophrenia”; the Japanese Justice Ministry has been informed of this yet he remains at risk of execution.

Amnesty’s report emphasises that there is “marked resistance” by the Japanese prison authorities to any measures considered liable to affect an inmate’s “calm state of mind”. This rationale is used to justify a wide range of draconian restrictions, including not telling prisoners about their execution dates and denying visits from lawyers, independent psychiatrists and NGOs. Earlier this year Amnesty was itself denied permission to visit Hakamada Iwao on death row in the Tokyo Detention House.

Alistair Carmichael MP, who chairs the parliamentary group for the abolition of the death penalty and has campaigned on Mr Hakamada’s case and visited Japan as part of an Amnesty delegation to the country, said:

Having been to Japan to see for myself the destructive effects of its incredibly secretive capital punishment system I feel strongly that the British government should now press for a death penalty moratorium from the newly-installed Japanese administration. The time is surely right for a change on this in Japan.

“In the case of Hakamada Iwao meeting one of his former trial judges convinced me of Mr Hakamada’s likely innocence and meeting his sister brought home to me the calamitous effect of death row on Mr Hakamada’s mental health. There is no way on earth Japan should ever execute this man.

“ Hakamada Iwao needs expert medical treatment, not further mental torture on death row.”

Read the full report: 'Hanging by a thread: Mental health and the death penalty in Japan' (PDF)

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