Prisoners under sentence of death around the world are often subjected to the most cruel conditions of detention. In many cases, they are kept in strict isolation, lack access to necessary medications and live with the constant anxiety of the threat of execution. Some governments notify prisoners and their relatives a matter of days or even moments before their execution.
Amnesty International has documented appalling abuses across the world. To mark World Day Against the Death Penalty, let us get to know more about the Death Penalty cases within the region
JAPAN – MATSUMOTO KENJI
For this year’s World Day, we would like to raise awareness on the consequences of the harsh conditions of detention on death row in Japan by highlighting the case of Matsumoto Kenji, who has developed a delusional disorder most likely as a result of his prolonged detention in solitary confinement while waiting for execution. The authorities provide no notice of any scheduled executions. In a letter, Matsumoto Kenji expressed his fear of repeatedly hearing other prisoners being taken away to be executed.
Matsumoto Kenji has been on death row for murder since 1993 and could face execution at any moment. He has a longstanding mental disability which originated from mercury poisoning (Minamata disease) and is reportedly paranoid and incoherent as a result of his detention on death row. He was convicted in relation to two separate robberies and murders in the period between September 1990 and September 1991. He appealed against his conviction but his case was rejected by the Osaka High Court on 21 February 1996. A subsequent appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected, and his death sentence was confirmed on 4 April 2000.
Matsumoto Kenji has a low IQ, (between 60 to 70 according to the diagnosis by a psychiatrist and, according to his lawyer, the police officers coerced him to “confess” to the crime by offering him food and telling him things such as “be a man” during interrogation. However, the court ruled that he is mentally competent enough to be sentenced to death and that his confession was reliable. He now uses a wheelchair and his lawyers have argued that due to his delusional disorder he is not competent to understand and participate in the legal proceedings in his case. He is also unable to understand the nature and purpose of the punishment imposed on him, the death sentence.
In Japan, 134 people were under sentence of death at the end of 2017. Prison conditions experienced by those under sentence of death in Japan are harsh and breach Japan’s obligations under the ICCPR. Prisoners are prohibited from talking to others on death row – a restriction enforced by strict isolation. Contact with the outside world is limited to infrequent and supervised visits from family, lawyers or other approved visitors. Visits can last from five to 30 minutes at the discretion of the Prison Director. A guard is always present during visits.
Prisoners may send one letter of up to seven pages per day. In principle, prisoners may receive letters from any source but supportive letters from the public will not be delivered. Both outgoing and incoming correspondence are subject to censorship.
Death row prisoners are not allowed to undertake personal projects or activities or watch television, although they can work voluntarily. Prisoners are allowed three books subject to approval. Exercise is limited to two 30 minute sessions per week outside their cells in summer and three times a week in winter. A prison staff member observes these exercise periods during which the prisoner is alone. Apart from this and toilet visits, prisoners are not allowed to move around their cell but must remain seated. Prisoners who breach disciplinary rules by, for example, moving within their cell at times when this is prohibited, or making a noise or otherwise creating a disturbance, may be subjected to punishment wherein conditions become harsher than normal.
These prison conditions coupled with the long and indeterminate periods of isolation on death row have led to several prisoners developing severe mental disabilities. Healthcare in Japanese prisons is provided by doctors, nurses and “quasi-nurses” whose employment and supervision is the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice rather than the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. Direct contact between lawyers and the medical staff is not permitted and does not occur. The prison director exercises his discretion in the release of medical information. This has made it challenging for the prisoners, their families and legal representatives to identify, understand and seek treatment for severe mental disabilities, whether pre-existing or developed while on death row.
Although international law and standards prohibit the use of the death penalty against people with mental or intellectual disabilities, the Japanese authorities do not respect this prohibition and have not commuted death sentences or halted executions on this ground. This is despite the fact that Japanese law – under Article 479 of the Code of Criminal Procedure – specifically gives the Minister of Justice the power and responsibility to stay executions.
WHY WE NEED YOUR SUPPORT NOW?
Matsumoto Kenji’s seventh request for a retrial, submitted in June 2016, was denied in March 2017. This ruling has been challenged by his lawyers and a decision on this is still pending. His lawyer has filed an additional complaint. In 2017, authorities in Japan executed three among four men who had their appeals for retrial pending. This was the first time since 1999 that anyone with a retrial pending was executed. Moreover, some of the members of the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo executed on 6 and 26 July 2018 also had requests for a retrial pending. Matsumoto Kenji’s lawyer is particularly concerned that he may be next to be executed given the increased pace of executions and the pattern to execute persons with pending retrial requests. This makes the need for actions on Matsumoto Kenji’s behalf more critical than ever.