by Charles Lemos, Sat Aug 28, 2010 at 02:12:51 AM EDT
Japan opened one of its execution chambers to the media for the first time on Friday, after the country's Justice Minister, Keiko Chiba, attended the hangings of two inmates in July and called for more debate on capital punishment. A series of false convictions have surfaced in recent months, including one of a 63-year-old man who had served 17 years of a life sentence for the murder of a 4-year-old girl. He was released after prosecutors admitted that his confession was a fabrication made under duress and DNA tests showed he was innocent.
Japan does not execute many prisoners compared to the United States. Since 1993, the country has carried out 43 executions. Seven were executed in 2009. By comparison, Texas executed its 16th prisoner of the year last week in Huntsville. The execution was the 224th in the administration of Governor Rick Perry. Texas has far and away the most active death chamber in America, accounting for more than 37 percent of the nation's post-Furman executions. Virginia ranks second.
Japan, however, has guarded its execution practices in secrecy for decades. Currently, there are 107 inmates on death row in Japanese prisons. Execution is by hanging. While the law says an execution must take place within six months after the sentence is finalized by the court system, in practice it usually takes several years. Among 30 executions that took place in the 10 years from 1997, the average period was 7 years and 11 months. Death row inmates are kept in solitary confinement in 7 detention centres throughout the country. Some inmates have been in solitary confinement for over 20 years.
Death row inmates are notified on the morning of their execution day that they will be executed, usually about an hour before the execution. The UN Committee against Torture has criticised Japan for "the psychological strain" on inmates and their families over the uncertainty of the execution timing.
Keiko Chiba, the Justice Minister, is an opponent of the death penalty. She is taking this action now to foster a debate in Japan on capital punishment. She lost her seat in Japan's Upper House in July's elections and will thus be soon losing her post.
There are 58 countries that still retain capital punishment, while 104 countries have abolished it and 35 have stopped executions in practice. Of the Group of Eight industrialized nations, only the United States and Japan use capital punishment. The 18 countries known to have conducted executions in 2009 were: Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Libya, Malaysia, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, the United States, Vietnam and Yemen.
More on this story at the New York Times.