Japan’s death penalty activists hope Pope Francis’ visit helps make the case for abolition

Julian Ryall

A coalition of lawyers, politicians and international activists is hoping to use Pope Francis’ upcoming visit to Japan to convince the government and the Japanese people to abolish the death penalty.

The Pope arrives on Saturday for a three-day visit that will be the first by a pontiff in 38 years. Only about 1 per cent of Japan’s population of 126 million identify as Christian, and of those some 536,000 are Catholic.

The scourge of nuclear weapons will be high on the list of the issues he intends to address, and he will visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki – which were devastated by atomic bombs during World War II – as well as Tokyo, the capital. But activists are also hoping the pontiff will raise his opposition to the death penalty when he meets Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday.

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Mario Marazziti, the joint founder of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, on Thursday said only 45 countries in the world still use the death penalty, with 104 countries having abolished it for all crimes and another 50 having a de facto moratorium on its use.

“I would say that Japan has a lot to win by stopping executions as the death penalty has nothing to do with making Japan safer,” said Marazziti in Tokyo. “There are 120 people on death row in Japan right now and it will change nothing if they die. But a lot will change if they live.”

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations in 2016 set itself the target of bringing about the end of the death penalty in the country before the end of 2020, said Kazunori Saito, vice-president of the organisation, who is calling for it to be replaced with a life sentence without parole.

But the vast majority of Japanese seem to support the death penalty, with polls indicating about 80 per cent of the public believe it serves as an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment in the most serious criminal cases.

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Saito, however, disputes those figures and insists a growing number of people are open to the idea of an alternative form of punishment.

Iwao Hakamada spent 48 years on death row after a wrongful conviction before being released in 2014. Photo: Reuters

Shinji Oguma, who heads the All-Party Parliamentary Group to Discuss the Future of Capital Punishment in Japan, said he expected the Pope to “clearly tell the Japanese people to please abolish the death penalty”.

“There are only a relatively small number of Catholics in Japan, but they clearly hold the Pope in high regard and they will heed that call,” he said. “Also, I do not believe that most Japanese look at capital punishment from a legal or human rights perspective; instead, they look at it emotionally, from the victim’s perspective.”

Japan has a lot to win by stopping executions as the death penalty has nothing to do with making Japan safer

Mario Marazziti, World Coalition Against the Death Penalty

There are also hopes among anti-death-penalty campaigners the Pope will meet Iwao Hakamada, arguably Japan’s best example of a miscarriage of justice that could have ended in an execution.

Hakamada, now 83, spent 48 years on death row after being convicted of the 1966 killing of a family of four and later setting fire to their home in the city of Shimizu.

Subsequent investigations concluded police had no firm evidence linking Hakamada to the crime but had interrogated him for 12 hours straight every day for 20 days until he signed a confession. He was released in 2014.

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In 1984, while still on death row and fighting to clear his name, Hakamada was baptised into the Catholic faith. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan has sent a request that the Pope meet Hakamada when he gives a mass at the Tokyo Dome on Monday.

“We are only here to try to help along this process towards abolition of the death penalty,” said Marazziti. “The world is going towards ending the death penalty and we do not want Japan to be the last to do that. It is no longer a matter of if it will be abolished, but when.”

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