The six remaining Aum Shinrikyo cult members on death row were executed Thursday morning, the Justice Ministry said, with all 13 of the cult members sentenced to death now having been hanged over the span of three weeks.
The executions followed the hanging of Shoko Asahara, the founder of the doomsday cult, and six former senior members of the group on July 6.
The six hung Thursday were Satoru Hashimoto, 51; Toru Toyoda, 50; Kenichi Hirose, 54; Yasuo Hayashi (later named Yasuo Koike), 60; Masato Yokoyama, 54; and Kazuaki Okazaki (later named Kazuaki Miyamae), 57. Hayashi and Okazaki changed their surnames after they were imprisoned.
The 13 high-level Aum members were sentenced to death for committing crimes including those involving the cult’s sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system in 1995; another sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1994; and the murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family in 1989.
It is rare for the government to execute this many death row inmates over a short period of time. Until now, the shortest time span between executions since November 1998, when records of executions were made public, was 47 days.
Media outlets have speculated that the Justice Ministry wanted to close the curtain on the shocking crimes and dramatic events before the end of the Heisei Era, which began in 1989. The era is set to end next year as Emperor Akihito plans to abdicate on April 30.
The cult had attracted many young people, including those who were highly educated at top-level universities. Some followers were believed to have become disillusioned with the materialism seen amid the euphoria of the bubble economy in the 1980s.
The indiscriminate murders by Aum, in particular those in the Tokyo subway attack, deeply shocked the nation and are still remembered as key events that damaged a long-held sense of security felt by many in postwar Japan.
“The majority of the public believe that there is no other option than to execute those who have committed brutal crimes,” said Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa during a news conference in Tokyo.
Polls have long shown a majority of Japanese people support capital punishment.
Kamikawa declined to reveal if any of those executed Thursday had been calling for the reopening of their trials, as has been reported by some media outlets.
Aum Shinrikyo split into three smaller religious groups after the arrest of Asahara. Local residents living around those groups’ facilities are worried, believing some of the followers still worship Asahara and the senior Aum members who were executed.
“The incidents that happened in the Heisei Era have finally ended. But for local residents, (their worries) won’t end unless (successor groups) are disbanded,” Hisashi Mizukami, 73, who heads a group of local citizens in Tokyo who live near the main office of Aleph, one of the successor groups, was quoted as saying by Kyodo News.
Human rights activists argue that those calling for retrial should not be executed unless all pending legal processes have been completed. The executions immediately drew condemnation from activists calling for the abolition of capital punishment.
Kamikawa said that the Justice Ministry does not believe that an execution should be delayed because an inmate is seeking a retrial.
The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has long called for the abolishment of the death penalty, arguing for lifetime imprisonment without parole instead. JFBA President Yutaro Kikuchi issued a statement on Thursday protesting Thursday’s execution.
“Criminal punishment should not be given just as retaliation but for something helpful in preventing the recurrence of a crime, such as achieving the rehabilitation (of a criminal) into society,” Kikuchi said.
Hiroka Shoji, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International, wrote on the group’s website, “This unprecedented execution spree, which has seen 13 people killed in a matter of weeks, does not leave Japanese society any safer. The hangings fail to address why people were drawn to a charismatic guru with dangerous ideas.”
Asahara founded the precursor of Aum Shinrikyo in 1986. Many members of the group were featured on TV shows numerous times in the 1990s to passionately defend the cult in public.
In March 1995, Aum Shinrikyo members released sarin gas inside subway cars during Tokyo’s morning rush hour, killing 13 and injuring thousands. That was soon followed by a police raid and the arrest of Asahara at the cult’s facilities in Kamikuishiki, Yamanashi Prefecture. The murders highlighted the dangerous nature of the cult, some of whose members would be willing to kill if ordered to by Asahara.
All the trials related to members of the cult were finalized in January this year, causing the media and the public to speculate that the death sentences would be carried out shortly. – The Japan Times, 26/7/2018
Japan on Friday introduced a bargaining system as part of an overhaul of its criminal investigation and trial systems, while battling concerns the new practice could encourage suspects or defendants to make false statements that lead to miscarriages of justice.
The new bargaining system, which resembles what is known as plea bargaining in the West, allows criminal suspects to negotiate deals with prosecutors in exchange for information on another criminal.
Prosecutors can reward informants who snitch with a variety of benefits, such as a recommendation for a lighter sentence or a promise to drop his or her case altogether.
Unlike the U.S. plea bargaining system, admitting to a crime does not warrant a deal with prosecutors in Japan. The new system, introduced in a revision to the criminal procedure law, allows suspects in such crimes as bribery, embezzlement, tax fraud and drug smuggling to negotiate with prosecutors. The bargaining only applies to crimes listed in the law, with murder and assault off-limits.
Prosecutors hold most of the bargaining power, barring some specific cases that involve the police, and deals can be made before or after prosecutors file formal charges.
The Japanese bargaining system is unique in that it permits deals only when the accused snitches, said Kana Sasakura, a professor at Konan University who specializes in criminal law.
“Bargaining systems around the world are usually based on rewarding suspects who confess” to a crime, but the revised Japanese law lacks that system and instead focuses entirely on deals between prosecutors and informants to aid investigations, she said.
Prosecutors had been advocating for the introduction of a bargaining system, claiming that changes in criminal procedure law, including a new rule obligating the recording of interrogations in certain investigations, required new and “diverse” ways to obtain evidence.
Yet critics are worried that pressure from prosecutors to cut deals will only reinforce the weaknesses of Japan’s current criminal justice system, which is largely dependent on confessions, unless proper measures are put in place to prevent false testimony and miscarriages of justice.
There will be “a strong incentive to “implicate others to get away with their own crimes or receive a lighter sentence,” said Sasakura. “That does lead to the possibility of wrongful accusations and convictions.”
Indeed, a 2005 report by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law (now Pritzker School of Law) found that, since 1973, more than 45 percent of the wrongful convictions involving men on death row in the United States who were later exonerated were obtained in part through such arrangements.
Also, out of 330 DNA exoneration cases in the U.S., 22 percent involved informant testimony that was used as evidence to convict, according to Brandon L. Garrett, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law.
To prevent suspects or the accused from lying to get a deal, Japan’s revised law penalizes false depositions and obliges defense lawyers to be involved in the bargaining process. If depositions are found to be false, those giving them will face up to five years in jail.
But critics are skeptical these measures would be enough to prevent fabrications.
Penalizing false depositions could “make it harder for informants to retract what they said,” Sasakura pointed out. Instead of discouraging false statements, the penalty may instead push informants to stick with their story even if it’s false, she explained.
Getting lawyers involved doesn’t guarantee false statements won’t be made, either.
Defense lawyers might find themselves in an ethical dilemma — whether to fight for their client’s best interests by making a deal or to see justice served, said Yuji Shiratori, a professor at Kanagawa University who specializes in criminal procedure law.
The lawyer of the informant “won’t have access to the information needed to make a justified decision about the ‘other case’ (involving an accomplice) and decide what is best for the client” when considering whether to bargain with prosecutors, he added.
“There are measures to deal with individual issues arising from the introduction of the bargaining system. But upon closer examination of such steps, it’s hard to say they would do enough” to prevent miscarriages of justice, Sasakura said.
Nobuo Gohara, a former prosecutor and current lawyer at Gohara Compliance and Law Office in Tokyo, insisted it is necessary to record people’s statements to detect the false ones.
Fabricated statements usually change over time to fit objective facts, so “it’s very important to know whether any ex post facto tweaks to the story have been made” to assess whether the informant’s account is false, he said.
However, given that the bargaining process won’t be recorded, it will be hard to judge whether a statement is false, he added.
Since informants, defense lawyers and prosecutors all have a stake in ensuring the depositions of suspects or defendants are true, it may make the Japanese criminal justice system more prone to wrongful convictions, Gohara also said.
Sasakura, the professor at Konan University, pointed out that the reliance on confessions and statements is a distinct aspect of the Japanese criminal justice system.
Behind Japan’s wrongful convictions is an “underlying mentality that confessions and statements are the most reliable piece of information,” sometimes more so than scientific and objective evidence, she said.
In the past, Japanese investigators “forced suspects to confess by applying pressure and conducting torturous interviews,” said Gohara. With the new system, the prosecutors will try to make them speak up in return for benefits.
“The way prosecutors try to make suspects or defendants speak may change, but the reality (of the confession-based justice system) won’t,” he added. – Japan Times, 31/5/2018