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The death in prison of a Japanese man who spent more than 46 years facing execution, after a conviction based on a forced confession, underlines the urgent need for a review of all similar cases, Amnesty International said today.  

Okunishi Masaru passed away at Hachioji Medical Prison on Sunday, aged 89. He maintained his innocence and was determined to seek a retrial. Eight previous requests for a retrial were rejected. He was moved to the medical prison from Nagoya Detention Centre in 2012 after his health deteriorated.

“Okunishi Masaru may not have gone to the gallows, but Japan’s justice system totally failed him. It is outrageous he was denied the retrial his case unquestionably merited and instead was left to languish on death row for more than 46 years,” said Hiroka Shoji, East Asia Researcher at Amnesty International.

“It is too late for Okunishi Masaru but others remain on death row convicted primarily on the basis of forced ‘confessions.’ The Japanese authorities must urgently review their cases to ensure that time does not run out for them to see justice.”

Okunishi Masaru had been on death row since 1969, after being convicted of the murders of five women. He confessed to the crime after being interrogated by police for many hours over five days and with no lawyer present.

During his first trial he retracted his confession and was acquitted due to lack of evidence. However, a higher court reversed the verdict and sentenced him to death.

For more than four decades, he lived in constant fear that each day could be his last. Death row inmates in Japan are only informed hours ahead of their execution, which takes place in secret. Like most prisoners facing execution, he spent nearly all his time locked up in solitary confinement.

Hakamada Iwao

One of the most pressing cases that demands a retrial is that of Hakamada Iwao, 79, who also spent more than four decades on death row. In March 2014, a court ordered his immediate release and a retrial. However, prosecutors immediately appealed the court decision to grant a retrial and a decision is pending.

“Prosecutors should allow Hakamada’s retrial to proceed before it is too late. By further delaying his quest for justice, prosecutors are only adding to the decades of psychological torture Hakamada and his family have endured,” said Hiroka Shoji.

Following an unfair trial, Hakamada was convicted of the murder of his boss, his boss’s wife and their two children. Hakamada confessed after 20 days of interrogation by police. He retracted the confession during the trial and told the court that the police had beaten and threatened him.

According to Hakamada’s lawyers, recent forensic tests results show no match between Hakamada’s DNA and samples taken from clothing the prosecution alleges were worn by the murderer. One of the three judges who convicted Hakamada in 1966 has publicly stated he believes him to be innocent.

Hakamada developed a mental disability as a result of the decades he has spent in isolation.

Tortured to confess

The Japanese justice system continues to rely heavily on confessions obtained through torture or other ill-treatment. There are no clear limits on the length of interrogations, which are not fully recorded and which lawyers are not permitted to attend.

Twelve people have been executed since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office in December 2012.  The number of death row inmates, at 128, is at one of the highest levels in Japan in over half a century. Amnesty International has called on the Japanese government to introduce a moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolition of the death penalty, and for reforms of Japan’s justice system in line with international standards.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime, guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual or the method used by the state to carry out the execution. The death penalty violates the right to life and is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.