TOKYO, Japan — Whether or not Iwao Hakamada committed the gruesome murders for which he was sentenced to hang is a matter of debate. What is certain is that the 73-year-old — the world’s longest-serving death row prisoner — has come to personify the cruelty inherent in Japan’s treatment of its most heinous criminals.

Hakamada, a former professional boxer, has spent 41 years on death row for a murder that even one of the three judges who sentenced him now believes he did not commit.

The possibility that an innocent man may have spent more than four decades in prison is not the only reason why Hakamada’s case has attracted the attention of human rights groups.

Amnesty International has accused Japan’s penal system of driving condemned men insane after subjecting them to, on average, at least seven years of “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment on death row.

The group’s 72-page report, published earlier this month, mounted a blistering critique of the idiosyncrasies that make capital punishment, Japan-style, among the most secretive and inhuman in the world.

Death row prisoners are locked away in solitary confinement, banned from talking to other inmates and permitted just two or three exercise periods a week. They are forbidden from moving around their cells, except to use the toilet, and meetings with lawyers and relatives are brief and infrequent, and always monitored.

Worst still is the uncertainty. Condemned men learn of the timing of their execution only hours before they are led away to the gallows. Their families are informed only after the fact, ostensibly so they can collect the body for cremation.

This, says Amnesty, constitutes a cruel and unusual punishment that sends many inmates into the depths of psychological despair.

“Each day could be their last, and the arrival of a prison officer with a death warrant would signal their execution within hours,” the report says. “Some live like this year after year, sometimes for decades.” Using interviews with relatives and lawyers, Amnesty says at least five death row inmates are mentally ill. Although international law and the Japanese criminal code ban the execution of prisoners deemed “insane,” the hangings continue.

“Japan’s death row system is driving prisoners into the depths of mental illness but they still being taken and hanged,” said Kate Allen, Amnesty’s U.K. director.

“The mental anguish of not knowing whether each day is to be your last is terrible enough. But Japan’s justice system also sees fit to bury its death row prisoners in the most punitive regime of silence, isolation and a sheer non-existence imaginable.”

Lawyers for Hakamada, who was sentenced in 1968 for murdering a family of four, say that decades of isolation and fear have left their client in a state of “institutional psychosis.”

As the only G7 countries to retain the death penalty, Japan and the United States have resisted the trend toward its abolition or non-use in other countries, including those bastions of human rights, Cambodia and Rwanda. (The U.S., of course, has been criticized worldwide for its death penalty record. On Sept. 15 the planned execution in Ohio of a convicted rapist-murderer was rescheduled after technicians were unable to inject him with lethal drugs.)

Between January 2006 and January this year, Japan hanged 32 men, including five in their 70s, according to campaigners. Last year the number of executions reached 15, the highest for more than 30 years.

But abolition may now be a step closer following the election last month of the center-left Democratic Party of Japan.

The new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, has raised hopes of a change in policy with the appointment as justice minister of Keiko Chiba, a former member of the Japan Socialist Party and a vocal opponent of capital punishment.

Chiba has so far stopped short of declaring a moratorium, saying only that she would “handle each case with caution” — an indication, observers say, that Japan will not send anyone to the gallows in the foreseeable future.

Yet if Chiba exercises her ministerial prerogative not to sign execution orders for any of Japan’s 102 death row prisoners, she will do so in defiance of popular opinion. A 2005 poll found that more than 80 percent of Japanese people supported capital punishment, partly in response to the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, in which 12 people died and thousands were injured.

Yet it would not be the first time that Japan has toyed with de facto abolition. No executions took place between 1989 and 1993, and for 15 months from October 2005 because justice ministers refused to sign execution orders.

After unsuccessful appeals and calls for a retrial, Hakamada’s attempts to prove his innocence appear to have run their course, although his lawyers say they haven’t given up hope.

If he is able to comprehend his circumstances – unlikely as that seems given his mental state of health – he may at least come to realize that the sound of a guard approaching his cell in the morning no longer means he may have only hours to live.

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