Death row prisoners in torment as legal system grinds on

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 October, 2009, 12:00am

When his body is not groaning under the weight of its 83 years, and the sun is shining over his native Kyushu in southern Japan, Sakae Menda can forget the ordeal he suffered.

But most days, there is no blotting out that the Japanese state stole 34 years of his life, or that he thought every one of those more than 12,000 days would be his last. 'Waiting to die is a kind of torture worse than death itself.'

Menda is the first man freed from Japan's death row, which has come in for withering criticism in a report from Amnesty International. Inmates have been driven to near-insanity while awaiting execution, the group says, and at least five of Japan's 102 condemned prisoners are mentally ill.

Death penalty opponents say Japan is bucking a worldwide trend towards abolition. Although it incarcerates just one-third the number of its citizens than Britain, Japan's conviction rate of over 99 per cent means that the condemned certainly include innocent men like Menda, campaigners say.

'There is little doubt that there are more Menda-san's inside our jails,' says Yoshikuni Noguchi, a prison guard turned lawyer.

Inmates are kept in solitary confinement and forced to wait an average of more than seven years - and sometimes decades - in toilet-sized cells while the legal system grinds on. When the order eventually comes, the condemned have minutes to get their affairs in order before facing the noose.

Early on December 30, 1948, a killer broke into the house of a priest and his wife near Menda's home and murdered them. Penniless, uneducated farmhand Menda was arrested for stealing brown rice. The police held him for three weeks, without allowing him access to a lawyer, until he confessed. Convicted on Christmas Day 1951, he did not step outside Fukuoka Prison until he was finally declared innocent in 1983.

Menda tells of hearing from his cell for the first time one of his fellow inmates being dragged to the gallows. It made him insane, he says, and caused him to scream so long that he was given chobatsu, a punishment consisting of having his hands cuffed for two months so he had to eat like an animal.

Every morning, after breakfast between 8am and 8.30am, the execution squads would come and the terror of this being his last day began anew. 'The guards would stop at your door, your heart would pound and then they would move on and you could breathe again,' he recalled.