Secrecy makes death penalty worse: prisoner rights advocate

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Secrecy makes death penalty worse: prisoner rights advocate


NEW YORK — As a country with the death penalty, Japan stands out for the secrecy that surrounds its practice, according to a Japanese advocate for prisoners' rights who spoke Tuesday at the United Nations.

Although Japan has the lowest homicide rate in the world, Maiko Tagusari, secretary general for Japan's Center for Prisoners' Rights, pointed out that there are currently 132 prisoners whose death sentences have been finalized.

"The only method of execution is hanging, which has been on the statute book for almost 140 years," she told diplomats and other activists who attended a special session focused on capital punishment and the question of human rights in Japan. "What makes this possible is a secrecy policy . . . but Japan's secrecy is too much."

Pointing out that executions often took place "suddenly," she explained that the prisoners and their families are not provided any information or prior notification of their scheduled executions.

"Even after the execution, almost no information other than the name and location of the executed person is released," she said, adding that neither families nor the media are ever allowed to witness the process.

The lawyer described the inconsistencies resulting from the lack of a clear sentencing guideline.

Despite the introduction of the lay judge system in May 2009, a unanimous verdict is not required, Tagusari said.

While current law prevents the execution of those who are considered insane, Tagusari argued that the rule has never been applied because there is "no reliable mechanism to evaluate" prisoners' mental conditions.

"Because of this secrecy, not only the public but also most politicians do not know the realities of the penalty," she said. "Voices demanding disclosure of information are not allowed even among the media."

She also said there is a general "ignorance" in the public sphere about issues that extend beyond capital punishment, including those related to deterrence and international trends.

"So we must say that Japan is lacking a precondition for political leadership toward abolition," Tagusari said.

The activist suggested that to bring about change in Japan, executions should be avoided, especially in cooperation with the international community, and that new precedents should be established.

"The condition of death-row inmates is harsh," she said, adding that their contact with the outside, through personal visits or letters, is restricted to three to five people, which she considers "inhumane treatment."

Also present as a panelist representing the United States was Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent nearly nine years in prison and two years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

Barely 23, the fisherman from Maryland was wrongly accused of brutally raping and killing a 9-year-old girl in August 1984 through false identification.

By chance he read a book about how DNA has helped the innocent become free and pursued the expensive method, which eventually led to his release. He became the first prisoner in the United States to be exonerated through DNA testing.

Ever since his release he has strongly advocated the abolition of the death penalty, describing how a series of "mistakes" led to his conviction and how a set of "miracles" led to his release.

"As long as any country has the death penalty, whether it is America or somewhere else, we can execute innocent people, and that should never happen ever," he said.