Two death row inmates have sued the Japanese government for what their lawyer called its “inhumane” practice of notifying prisoners of their executions just hours before they are carried out.
The short notice leaves little time for the prisoner to challenge the punishment—conducted by hanging—and is unconstitutional, said Yutaka Ueda, one of the lawyers representing the inmates.
“Death row inmates never know whether that day will be the last. So they wake up each morning thinking, ‘Today could be the day, today could be the day,’” he told VICE World News.
The two prisoners filed their suit in an Osaka district court on Thursday, in what Japanese media are reporting as the first case challenging the practice. They demanded the policy be changed and 22 million yen ($195,000) in compensation. Ueda declined to name the inmates or say what offenses they were convicted of.
Japan is one of a handful of industrialized nations that still carries out capital punishment, which is supported by a majority of the Japanese population. But global rights groups and local activists have pushed dropping the penalty.
Ueda said same-day executions are “inhumane” and compared the treatment of death row inmates in Japan to those in the United States, where capital punishment is authorized in 27 states.
Inmates in the U.S. “can sometimes get 30 days before execution. They can see their families, write parting letters, are able to process the last days of their life—they even get last meals,” he said.
Currently, there’s no law in Japan stipulating how many days in advance inmates should be notified of their execution, and some death row inmates were informed of their execution date days in advance.
The government did not announce any amendment to the notification period. But activists and lawyers say the practice changed around 1975, when a prisoner killed himself after being told of his execution date.
Global human rights groups have urged Japan to abolish capital punishment. Over the years, the United Nations has passed resolutions to call on countries to give up the death penalty and, for states that maintain it, respect death row inmates’ rights. A 2020 motion called on countries to provide information in advance about a pending execution to prisoners and their families.
Just in 2017, human rights organization Amnesty International accused the country of breaking international laws by executing death row prisoners seeking retrial.
With regard to the two inmates’ lawsuit, a Japanese Ministry of Justice official said it would respond appropriately once court proceedings begin.
There are currently 112 inmates on death row in Japan. The most recent execution was in 2019, when Chinese national Wei Wei was hanged for murdering a family of four in 2003.
In 2018, the country hanged 15 people, including Shoko Asahara, the leader of the infamous cult Aum Shinrikyo. The doomsday cult carried out a deadly sarin attack in the Tokyo subway that killed 13 people in 1995.