Friday, September 11, 2009

Fate Worse Than Death

From A Silicon Valley Life

There was an interesting segment on the BBC World Service I caught on the way to the office today. Triggered perhaps by the election of a new and more liberal government in Japan, the BBC ran a piece on the death penalty in that country and how it manages to be one of the most inhumane instances of a practice that is itself already deemed inhumane in much of the developed world.

As documented in a recent Amnesty International report, Japanese prisoners on death row suffer an number of additional deprivations above and beyond merely being confined and under sentence of death. Prisoners are, for example, forbidden to move around their cells except to use the toilet; they are not allowed to talk to their jailers - indeed, they are not even allowed to make eye contact with their captors. But perhaps the worst thing of all is that they do not know when they will be executed. The BBC reported that prisoners are only told on the morning of the day the sentence is to be applied that this will in fact be their last day on earth. Imagine what that must be like. Every day you wake up waiting to hear if this is it or if you have another day to live. Every morning, day in and day out, you face the uncertainty all over again as to whether or not you have a future that stretches out beyond lunch time.

It's hardly surprising, therefore, that Amnesty concludes that prisoners are basically being driven nuts by this approach, and I quote "The mental anguish of not knowing whether each day is to be your last on Earth 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."

The BBC interviewed a local writer as to how the Japanese people could allow this state of affairs to exist? His take was that a) it was literally a one-in-a-million group of individuals (120 inmates from a population of around 120 million) and hence largely ignored, b) these individuals had to had committed multiple murders and not just one and hence by definition seen as being the "worst of the worst", and c) that their crimes automatically proved that they were so far outside of society that they were beyond any such thing as inalienable human rights.

Historically, there's been no political will whatsoever to change this practice. However, it turns out that the change of government may well usher in a more open-minded approach. One of the new cabinet ministers has been an outspoken critic of the Japanese approach to handling death row prisoners, offering an opening to effect some much needed change.

No comments: