Monday, September 14, 2009

Hanging By a Thread

Amnesty International has just released a report titled Hanging by a Thread: Mental Health and the Death Penalty in Japan, which is a valuable follow-up to Amnesty's 2006 report on The Execution of Mentally Ill Offenders in the U.S. and also complements our own recent report, Double Tragedies.

Here's a paragraph from the introduction to Hanging by a Thread:

The effect of mental illness on the behaviour of an offender has long been recognized as a factor in determining culpability and appropriate punishment for crime. The application of the death penalty against prisoners who were “insane” at the time of their offence or who subsequently became insane has been prohibited for centuries in some jurisdictions. International human rights standards prohibit the imposition of the death penalty on, and the execution of, the mentally ill. This report examines the issue of mental health and the death penalty in Japan and is prompted by continuing reports of mentally ill prisoners in Japan being executed or detained in harsh conditions awaiting execution.

The report details several specific stories and also contains valuable discussion of international human rights law and of the death penalty in Japan in general. It has gotten some good press coverage. For example, this CNN story said:

Japan executes such prisoners despite signing an international law that requires inmates with serious mental illness to be exempt from the death penalty, according to Amnesty. The report urged the government to establish a moratorium on executions and consider abolishing the death penalty.

And here's a clip from The Associated Press story:

The report focuses on five male inmates currently on death row. Amnesty International, which staunchly opposes the death penalty, had no direct access to the prisoners. It relied on interviews with family members, lawyers and medical reports to conclude that they are likely suffering from mental illness.

Japan's Justice Ministry had no comment on the report, ministry official Akihiro Ishi said.

Japan, along with the United States, is one of the few industrialized countries that still has capital punishment. The practice has long been criticized by rights groups and the main Japanese bar association, but there is little public outcry or indication the government will stop its executions, which are all done by hanging.

Executing mentally ill prisoners would put Japan in violation of U.N. standards for individuals facing the death penalty. Amnesty International is calling for an immediate moratorium on all executions in the country.

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