Tue, Dec 26, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Eleventh hour Christmas executions meet strong Christian condemnation

AFP , TOKYO

Japan hanged four prisoners on Christmas Day, including two men in their 70s, as the government ended a 15-month moratorium on the death penalty.

Yesterday's hangings were the first in the country since September last year, when one convicted murderer was executed. Japan is the only major industrialized country other than the US to practice the death penalty.

The death penalty is widely supported in Japan and analysts said the government wanted to carry out executions this year, which would have been the first year without any hangings since 1992.

But the timing was condemned by some members of the Christian community, which makes up one percent of the population in the largely Shinto and Buddhist country.

"It was such an insensitive act," said Makoto Suzuki, a Christian who is active in the anti-death penalty movement. "Christmas is the day to reaffirm humanity."

A justice ministry spokesman said four inmates were executed but citing government policy he refused to identify the prisoners or say where they were killed.

Japanese media said that the four included two of the oldest prisoners on death row -- convicted murderers Yoshimitsu Akiyama, 77, and Yoshio Fujinami, 75 -- who were both in jail in Tokyo.

The others were reported to be Hiroaki Hidaka, 44, a taxi driver in Hiroshima convicted of murdering a girl and three women and farmer Michio Fukuoka, 64, who killed three people, including his father-in-law and sister-in-law.

Japan effectively had a moratorium on the death penalty imposed by former justice minister Seiken Sugiura, who served from October last year until September. He said executions went against his Buddhist beliefs.

He was replaced three months ago by Jinen Nagase when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office. By law the justice minister has to sign off on executions.

"I think they had a political motivation, from the public security point of view, to carry these out within the year so as not to end the year without a single execution," said Asaho Mizushima, a law professor at Waseda University.

"Japanese courts are tending to impose harsher penalties, while public sentiment is becoming more tolerant for heavier punishment under the hawkish Abe government," said Mizushima, a death penalty opponent.

"They did the executions at the last minute [before the year ends] to balance out the time of the former justice minister," he said.

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