Home GHANA NEWS  Inside harrowing death row jails where prisoners are executed with no warning

Inside harrowing death row jails where prisoners are executed with no warning

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Inside harrowing death row jails where prisoners are executed with no warning
Inside harrowing death row jails where prisoners are executed with no warning

Every death is shrouded in secrecy – with those executed killed with little or no notice.

Their families and loved one have no chance to say goodbye and are only told about the execution after it has happened.

Capital punishment is still legal in Japan, where those condemned to die are executed by hanging.

In each case, they are blindfolded and have a black hood placed over their heads before their neck is broken using a rope, which hangs over a trap door.

Each execution is carried out with three prison officers present. They all press the buttons for the trap door at the same time so they don’t know who is responsible.

Japan's executions are shrouded in secrecy
Japan’s executions are shrouded in secrecy (Image: AFP)

The only people the prisoner is allowed to see in their final few moments alive are prison officials and a priest.

In 2018, Masakatsu Nishikawa, was executed in Japan – and his death was disturbingly efficient.

There was a polished floor and tasteful lighting, the soothing calm of a Buddhist   sutra and a last glimpse of art.

Then – with a brutality that no fine furnishings can hide – a noose was put around his neck and the trapdoor beneath his feet gave way.

He was probably dead within seconds, killed by a state that shrouds its execution process in such secrecy even the condemned prisoner only knows he is due to die a handful of hours before.

Prisoners are given very little notice they are about to die
Prisoners are given very little notice they are about to die (Image: The Asahi Shimbun)

Nishikawa, 61, was no saint. He had been convicted of murdering four women in an horrific killing spree more than 25 years ago.

Koichi Sumida, the second man Japan executed that day, was also guilty of murder – this time of a female ex colleague.

Another put to death in Japan is Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Aum Shinri Kyo cult, which was behind the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

Asahara, 63, was the mastermind behind the deadly attack that killed 13 people and injured 6,000 some 23 years ago.

Some 13 members of the cult have been on Japan’s death row – Reuters report that six of that were executed at the same time.

Masakatsu Nishikawa was executed for killing women more than 25 years ago
Masakatsu Nishikawa was executed for killing women more than 25 years ago

Their executions will be the subject of little debate in Japan though, due to the secretive nature of the process.

Inmates are held in solitary confinement and only allowed to exercise twice a week.

There is little to relieve a life of queasy boredom with family visits kept to an absolute minimum.

Most spend at least five years awaiting their fate and some – like Nishikawa – spend decades never knowing quite when death will come.

Koichi Shoji, 64, was hanged at Tokyo Detention Centre, while Yasunori Suzuki, 50, was hanged at Fukuoka Detention Centre in August last year.

The tiny cells where prisoners are kept on death row
The tiny cells where prisoners are kept on death row (Image: The Asahi Shimbun)

Both men had been convicted of murder and the executions were the first to be carried out in Japan this year. Neither men could deny their guilt.

Shoji had killed one woman and raped and killed a second in 2001. He had carried out the crimes in conspiracy with his girlfriend.

A year earlier he had raped and hurt another woman in Tokyo.

Suzuki had raped and murdered one 18-year-old victim and killed a second woman, aged 64.

He was also convicted of the rape and attempted murder of a third woman.

Prisoners can speak to a priest in this room before they're executed
Prisoners can speak to a priest in this room before they’re executed (Image: AFP)

Suzuki carried out his appalling crimes over the space of just four weeks between December 2004 to January 2005.

Both men’s executions were ordered by Japan’s Justice Minister, Takashi Yamashita.

He said: “Sexual assault, including rape, is an unforgivable crime in itself. These cases were particularly harrowing, as the criminals also murdered their victims.”

Between 2012 and 2016, 24 people were executed in Japan – but there are more than 110 still on death row.

Amnesty International has called for executions and the death penalty to be abolished in Japan.

Leader of Japan's doomsday Aum Supreme Truth cult was executed for mass murder in a Sarin attack
Leader of Japan’s doomsday Aum Supreme Truth cult was executed for mass murder in a Sarin attack (Image: Reuters)

Roseann Rife, East Asia Research Director at Amnesty International, said: “These executions demonstrate the Japanese government’s shocking disregard for human life.

“While the rest of the world increasingly turns its back on the death penalty, Japan remains stuck in the past by continuing with this ultimate cruel and irreversible punishment.

“It is deplorable that the government continues to carry out executions.

“As Japan prepares to host the UN Crime Congress next April, it is high time that its criminal justice system is reviewed to fully comply with international human rights law and standards.

“We urge the Japanese authorities to establish an immediate moratorium on all executions and promote an informed debate on the death penalty as first steps towards its abolition.”

Asahara was behind a Sarin attack on Tokyo's underground almost 30 years ago
Asahara was behind a Sarin attack on Tokyo’s underground almost 30 years ago (Image: Reuters)

In a report published in 2008, Amnesty said as a result inmates were being driven insane and exposed to “cruel, inhuman and degrading” punishment.

There has also been criticism by the UN Committee Against Torture, which highlighted the secrecy of the execution system and the psychological strain it puts on inmates and their families.

It is a peculiar position for a nation – the second richest in the world – which prides itself on advancement and where citizens enjoy an enviable standard of life well into old age.

The only other member of the G8 power group which retains the death penalty is the US.

Yet capital punishment remains widely supported by the Japanese public and – with no option for life imprisonment – judges face a choice between prison with certain release or death for multiple killers.

The execution chamber
The execution chamber (Image: The Asahi Shimbun)

In 2010, Japanese authorities took the unusual step of allowing journalists into the Tokyo Detention House.

Pictures show a suite of rooms both mundane and deeply sinister.

Thick carpet, cedar floors and soft lighting evoke a hotel conference centre.

Not so the hooks on the walls where inmates are chained or the square trap door at the centre of the execution chamber.

Red lines mark the spot where convicts stand with the noose around their necks.

The trap door prisoners have to stand on
The trap door prisoners have to stand on (Image: AFP)

The mechanism is triggered by one of three wall-mounted push buttons in a neighbouring room.

Details of the process emerged in a piece by Charles Lane,   who wrote: “At the press of a button, a trap door directly under the prisoner swings open, and he drops through a square hole in the cedar, or the carpet.

“The noose at the end of a slender beige rope tightens, the prisoner’s neck snaps, and he stops moving.

“His body dangles in a separate room downstairs, until the time comes for a doctor to verify that he is dead.

“On this lower level, the environment is unadorned concrete. There is a drain in the middle of the floor.”

The three switches are all pressed at the same time
The three switches are all pressed at the same time (Image: AFP)

In 2013 Masahiko Fujita, 66, who served as an executioner in the 1970s while a senior officer at the Osaka Detention House, recalled the face of one executed convict, noting he was pale but “looked very peaceful.”

He said once the inmate is pronounced dead by a doctor, the rope is loosened and his corpse is placed in a coffin.

Fujita said the rope is tied so its noose comes to the side of the neck, making it look as if the condemned is bowing toward witnesses when dropped from the upper floor.

The prisoner’s hands and legs are bound to prevent them from flailing, he said.

There is a viewing window where officials can watch the hanging and the law dictates prosecutors are sometimes required to serve as witnesses.

When a prosecutor returns to his office after an execution, he may find the floor strewn with salt. It is an act of ritual purification.

Those told they are about to be executed have no time to say goodbye to loved ones – although they are given a final meal.

On the way to the execution chamber is a sculpture of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.

She was sentenced to death for refusing to marry the husband her father chose for her – but the executioner’s sword broke before he could harm her.

She will be one of the last faces a condemned prisoner sees. They go blindfold to the room where the hangman’s noose awaits them.

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