Covering events from January - December 2002

JAPAN
Head of government: Koizumi Junichiro
Death penalty: retentionist
International Criminal Court: not signed

Two people were executed in 2002. More than 100 people remained on death row during the year, many of whom had been convicted on the basis of confessions extracted during pre-trial detention. Reports of ill-treatment and torture of prisoners in detention continued to be received. There were concerns about the lack of an independent complaints procedure for prisoners. Refugee recognition procedures failed to meet international standards. Several refugees and around 20 asylum-seekers were detained.


Background

Issues relating to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) were given prominence in the media during the year. In May the Chinese police entered the Japanese Consulate in Shenyang in the People's Republic of China and dragged out five North Korean asylum-seekers. Japanese officials claimed the Chinese police entered the Consulate without Japan's consent. However, Chinese officials maintained that they had permission from the Japanese authorities to enter the compound.

In September there was an historic summit meeting in Pyongyang, North Korea, between Prime Minister Koizumi and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il. This meeting led to a joint declaration by the Japanese and North Korean governments – the Pyongyang Declaration – which included an apology by Japan for its colonial past and an agreement by both governments on an early normalization of relations between the two countries. During the meeting Kim Jong Il admitted that North Korean agents had kidnapped 13 Japanese citizens in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Eight of those abducted were reported to have died; the remaining five were able to visit relatives in Japan in October. The summit resulted in normalization talks in October. However, talks were suspended as the Japanese government insisted that the five kidnapped Japanese who were visiting Japan be allowed to stay in Japan and that their family members still in North Korea be allowed to join them.

Death penalty

Two people were hanged on 17 September while media attention was dominated by the Japan-North Korea summit meeting. The authorities continued to carry out executions in secret. The prisoners were informed of their executions just hours before they were scheduled to be carried out and so were effectively denied the right to see relatives or consult their lawyers. Both executions were carried out while parliament was in recess and so unable to debate the issue.

In 2001 the Council of Europe had threatened to withdraw Japan's observer status at the Council if Japan did not take positive steps to abolish the death penalty. After Japan carried out the executions in September, the Council of Europe issued a statement condemning the executions and stated that it was horrifying that they took place without the families of the executed men knowing the date in advance.

At the end of 2002, more than 100 prisoners remained under sentence of death, 57 of whom had had their sentences confirmed by the Supreme Court. Prison conditions on death row amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Many prisoners under sentence of death were held in solitary confinement with limited contact with the outside world; some had been held in such conditions for over a decade.

Asylum-seekers

At the end of 2002 only 11 people were recognized as refugees, despite the increase in the number of refugee applications. Asylum determination procedures continued to be subject to long delays and were very secretive; for example, asylum-seekers were not given any specific reasons for the rejection of their claim. At least four refugees whose status had been recognized by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) were detained in immigration detention facilities, such as the West Japan Immigration Centre. This centre failed to meet international standards, in that detainees had very little opportunity to exercise and had limited access to medical treatment. Some of the detainees intentionally injured themselves in protest at their indefinite detention. Some asylum-seekers had been held at the Centre for more than a year.

The authorities reportedly continued to forcibly return asylum-seekers to countries where they could be at risk of serious human rights violations, in breach of the internationally recognized principle of non-refoulement. Many repatriations were carried out in secret; in a few cases, public attention prevented forcible returns.

  • In March, the Japanese authorities reportedly intended to forcibly return at least 19 asylum-seekers to Afghanistan. Many were believed to be from the Hazara ethnic group who were persecuted when the mainly Pashtun Taleban were in power. Despite the collapse of the Taleban regime, they remained at risk of torture and persecution if forcibly returned to Afghanistan. Deportation orders were issued for almost all of them, but following international pressure all were provisionally released.
Torture and ill-treatment

Reports of torture and ill-treatment of prisoners by prison officials continued to be received. Notoriously complex and harsh rules govern every part of prisoners' lives, including how they should sit and when they may speak. There were continuing reports of prisoners being forced to sit cross-legged or with their legs folded under them without moving for very long periods.

There was continued reliance by the courts on a confession-based system known as Daiyo Kangoku, which involves incommunicado detention for up to 23 days before charge. In some cases the confessions themselves were extracted through the use of interrogation techniques such as early morning to midnight interrogations and harsh physical and psychological conditions amounting to torture. There was concern at the lack of an independent complaints procedure in prisons. There were several reports that prisoners who complained of torture or ill-treatment were subjected to beatings and harassment to force them to withdraw their complaints.
  • A 49-year-old prisoner died in Nagoya prison in May when guards put a restraining device comprising handcuffs and a belt around his abdomen and left him unsupervised in solitary confinement. The prisoner had a fatal heart attack later that day while still restrained. Two of five prison officers who were arrested in September for another case (see below) were also charged in connection with this case.
  • In September, five prison officials from Nagoya prison were arrested for reportedly attacking a 30-year-old inmate, putting him in a leather restraining device and placing him in solitary confinement. The prisoner reportedly suffered internal bleeding and was hospitalized for three weeks as a result. In November the Ministry of Justice announced that the head of the prison and two senior assistants would be demoted to posts at the regional correctional bureau.
Legislation

The government submitted a Human Rights Protection Bill to the House of Councillors, the upper house of parliament, in March. There was concern that the National Human Rights Commission proposed under this Bill would not be independent from the government but would be established as an affiliate under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice.

In May the government signed the optional protocols to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Visits

AI delegates visited Japan in December.

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