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Human Rights Group Calls on European Union to Urge Abolition of the Death Penalty in Japan at Upcoming Summit

Amnesty International (AI) recently called on the European Union (EU) to step up pressure on Japan to abolish the death penalty at an April 24th Japan-EU Summit Meeting. The London-based human rights organization released the statement the same day it issued its annual report on the death penalty.

While, according to the report, the majority of executions in 2005 took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the USA, the group finds Japan’s policy especially objectionable, given its status as a developed nation.

The organization hopes the EU will use the upcoming summit as a chance to call attention to “…this regrettable stain on Japan’s human rights record.”

Says Dick Oosting, Director of Amnesty International’s EU Office, “It’s a sad paradox to see one of the most industrialized countries and a great contributor of human aid, failing to uphold basic values at home.” He continues, “The Summit provides an ideal opportunity for the EU to raise the pressure on Japan to follow the example of several nations which have recently abolished the death penalty.”

Amnesty International and the European Union are both opposed to the death penalty in all cases. As stated on its website, the EU’s goal is to progressively restrict the death penalty in countries where it is legal and ultimately achieve universal abolition.

AI insists Japanese officials sometimes elicit false accusations by subjecting prisoners to unpleasant conditions. The group also criticizes the system for limiting outside contact, prohibiting television and books, and placing prisoners in solitary confinement for years at a time.

The EU has, in fact, encouraged Japan to reconsider its position on the death penalty in recent years. At a 2005 International Conference on Human Rights and Death Penalty, Michael Reiterer of the EU Delegation of the European Commission to Japan called for a moratorium on capital punishment during his opening address. He recognized the policy’s popularity in Japan, but noted that a majority of people in favor of capital punishment “…is an indication for more discussion, not a justification for its continued use” and that the secretive nature of the process “…does not sit well with an open, democratic society.”

According to Amnesty International’s press release, there is a possibility Japan could lose its observer status on the Council of Europe over this issue. Journalist, Charles Lane of the Washington Post, doubts this will occur and outlines the reasons Japan maintains the policy.

In a Post article last year, he argued Japan has little motivation to end the death penalty, citing a few major reasons: the public supports it, the country faces no significant penalty in maintaining the policy, and the government uses the matter to distinguish Japan as a sovereign nation that makes its own decisions.

Mr. Lane contends one reason the public supports capital punishment because it is poorly-informed, often due to the system’s secretive execution process. Amnesty International agrees, maintaining that public debate and protest are stifled by delaying execution announcements until after the hanging has occurred. Moreover, Mr. Lane argues that retribution is an intrinsic value within the culture and the Japanese have a tradition of weeding out delinquents. He also believes street crime has bred insecurity amongst the nation’s citizens, further fueling support of the policy.

According to Mr. Lane, Japanese Ministry officials feel their justice system is all but flawless because prosecutors rarely bring charges “…unless the defendant confesses and only seek the death penalty in selected cases involving multiple victims, or where murder is combined with rape or robbery.” Human rights groups like AI obviously disagree.

As for reform, such as placing a moratorium on the practice, Mr. Lane says such bills have been discussed but don’t ever surface because the Japanese know they will not pass.

He also makes a relevant point that, in some European countries which put an end to the death penalty, the public supported capital punishment, but it was sometimes abolished in order to gain inclusion in the EU. Clearly, inclusion in the EU is not a motivating factor for Japan, nor, as Mr. Lane argues, will Europe likely sanction one of the world’s largest economies. Additionally, he points out the Council of Europe has been hesitant to take Japan’s observer status away. In essence, there is no motivation. Thus, lacking any significant penalty and following public opinion, he deems it unlikely the Japanese government will take much action on this front without a change in opinion or stronger penalties.

Still, Mr. Lane does see potential for future system reform, depending on the level of awareness by the public. He says Japanese courts have followed public sentiment in the past and the country’s policy on capital punishment has changed over the years, as well.

The Summit Meeting will be held in Tokyo at the Prime Minister’s official residence.

A release issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan does not cite specific discussion topics, only noting that EU and Japanese leaders “will exchange views on wide-ranging issues including the political and economic relations and common agendas for Japan and the EU in the international community.”

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