Wed, Jul 23, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Japanese officials earn rare chance to glimpse gallows

AP , TOKYO

Japanese lawmakers won approval yesterday to inspect one of the country's execution chambers in an extremely rare glimpse into a secretive system long criticized by international human-rights groups.

The small group of lawmakers from the Lower House Justice Committee will inspect the gallows at a prison in Tokyo, Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama said at a news conference.

"We're respecting lawmakers' wishes to go," Moriyama said. "I'm sure everyone has their own opinions about the place -- this just demonstrates how important a place it is."

The visit today will reportedly be the first glimpse anyone outside the criminal justice system has had of an execution chamber in 30 years. The Asahi Shimbun, a major daily, said outsiders last visited an execution chamber when the then justice minister showed a facility to lawmakers in 1973.

Capital punishment is conducted under deep secrecy in Japan, which has raised concerns over the protection of human rights.

The Justice Ministry refuses to disclose the names of executed criminals or announce executions in advance. Until 1998, the government refused to officially acknowledge that it carried any out.

Death sentences -- which Japan carries out by hanging -- have also often been implemented while parliament is in recess, a step critics say is intended to shield the Justice Ministry from protests by anti-death-penalty lawmakers.

But Japan's corrections system has come under increased scrutiny after a warden at Nagoya Prison was arrested this year for allegedly torturing and killing an inmate two years ago.

The case triggered criticism of prison conditions in general and prompted an investigation by government officials.

A total of 57 inmates were on death row in Japan as of the end of June.

Japan last executed people in September, when Moriyama approved the hanging of two prisoners. Before that, two people were executed on Dec. 27, 2001 when parliament was in recess.

Nobuto Hosaka, a leader in the parliament's League for Abolition of the Death Penalty and a member of the opposition Social Democratic Party, was due to attend the tour today. The justice committee chairman and ruling Liberal Democratic Party member Yuji Yamamoto also planned to join.

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