The following article was originally written and published in 2007 about Iwao Hakamada. He recently was found innocent and freed after serving on death row for 48 years.
By IPS Correspondent
TOKYO, Nov 11 2007 (IPS) – Norimichi Kumamoto says he still feels “tremendous anger” and cannot maintain his silence any longer. In 1968, he was one of three judges who sentenced a boxer to death on charges of murdering a family of four, although at the time he was convinced the man was innocent.
“My vote was overruled. It was a two to one,” Kumamoto, his voice rasping with troubled emotion, told a press conference here on Nov 6.
The other two judges had rejected his massive 360-page document arguing his reasons for believing the man to be innocent. A year later, Kumamoto, then a young judge with a promising future before him, quit the bench in protest.
For 39 years the convicted man, Iwao Hakamada, now 71, has remained on Japan’s death row in a small, windowless cell, wondering when the guards will come to march him to the scaffold.
Hakamada is slowly losing his mind, say his sister and campaigners. “Iwao’s spirit is on the verge of its end,” confirmed Catholic Cardinal Seiichi Sirayanagi of Tokyo in a booklet, entitled Save an Innocent Prisoner, which was circulated at the press conference.
“I have thought about his trial for many years,” Kumamoto, 70, told the gathered journalists. “I have felt sadness and disappointment over this.”
Besides finally breaking his silence by talking to the press, this month Kumamoto filed a petition with Japan’s Supreme Court demanding a retrial for Hakamada.
The evidence presented by the state prosecutors against Hakamada was insufficient for a conviction, Kumamoto said. “I thought we could not find him guilty … the five pieces of evidence that were provided did not make sense.” Prosecutors provided five items of bloodstained clothing as evidence. There was a pair of trousers which did not fit the one-time boxer, Kumamoto said.
He added: “The guilty verdict was based solely on Hakamada confessing to the killings. But he confessed after being confined and tortured in a small room for 20 days.”
The court rejected 44 out of the 45 records of interrogations – in which Hakamada admitted to killing a soybean company executive and his family of three, in Shizouka prefecture, in the Chubu region of Honshu island – questioning whether these had been given voluntarily.
But it accepted one confession and based its conviction on this, said Kumamoto who now risks being charged for breaking a secrecy law barring judges from speaking after they reach joint decisions.
“During his trial at the Shizuoka District Court in December 1966 he retracted his confession and claimed he was innocent,” Amnesty has also reported, adding that taken together all the statements “contained nothing of substance”.
“I have to let the world know what happens in Japan,” Kumamoto said. “The police use shocking, barbaric means to extract confessions and those who make them do so only out of despair.” His view was supported by Hakamada’s chief lawyer Hideo Ogawa, who also spoke at the press conference.
“Japan has not changed its treatment of suspects since the 1600s, and they (the suspects) are not recognised as human beings,” Ogawa said. The judicial system was based largely on obtaining written confessions given to police investigators in unrecorded interrogation sessions, he said.
This was supported by official statistics provided by the Supreme Court to IPS after the press conference. In more than 90 percent of all court convictions last year there was an accompanying confession.
“If you are innocent but accused of a crime, there are few safeguards to protect you,” Ogawa charged. “The police can detain citizens up to 24 days. They do not have any rules regarding what time they can start the interrogation in the morning, or finish in the evening. And there is no lawyer in the room.” He added: “The Japanese believe that if the prosecutor says someone is guilty then it must be true.”
Ogawa is convinced that some innocent people had been wrongly convicted and executed. He recalled the case of Sakae Menda who was accused of murdering and injuring a family of four in Hitoyoshi City in Kumamoto Prefecture in 1948. He had been coerced into a confession after days of interrogation. Evidence supporting his alibi was ignored. Menda’s conviction was eventually overturned after he had spent more than 30 years in prison.
Japan is the only member of the Group of Seven industrialized nations, other than the United States, to maintain capital punishment.
Currently there are 104 people awaiting execution in Japan, according to Norimichi Kumamoto. Between 1946 and 1993, Japanese courts sentenced 766 people to death and 608 were executed.
Hakamada’s request for a retrial was rejected in 1994. His appeal to the Supreme Court for retrial has been held up for the last three years.