World’s longest-serving death row prisoner freed in Japan

Japanese court says police evidence against man convicted in 1968 was probably fabricated

A television on display at an electronics store in Tokyo shows footage of Iwao Hakamada, who has spent over 45 years in solitary confinement on death row, being released from prison. Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA

A television on display at an electronics store in Tokyo shows footage of Iwao Hakamada, who has spent over 45 years in solitary confinement on death row, being released from prison. Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA

Fri, Mar 28, 2014, 01:01

David McNeill, in Tokyo

Every day of his life for over 45 years, Iwao Hakamada woke up wondering if he was going to be frogmarched to the gallows. Today the world’s longest-serving death row prisoner is a free man sleeping in a Tokyo hotel after a Japanese court said police evidence against him was probably fabricated.

A former factory worker, Hakamada, 78, was convicted of murdering a family of four in 1966, largely on the basis of a confession he says was coerced. Since his conviction was finalised in 1968, he has lived in solitary confinement waiting to he hanged. He has always maintained his innocence.

Yesterday he emerged from a Tokyo detention centre looking frail and bewildered before stepping into a waiting car. His lawyer Katsuhiko Nishijima said Hakamada at first could not take in that he had been freed. “His first reaction was: ‘That must be a lie.’ It only sunk in after he got out of the car and walked around a little.”

Hakamada was in his 30s and living in Shizuoka, south of Tokyo when his boss was robbed and murdered, along with his wife and two children. The killer set the house on fire and fled.

Police arrested and detained him for three weeks without a lawyer. He signed a confession but later retracted it, insisting he was beaten and coerced. A panel of judges nevertheless convicted him of all four murders in 1968. Six months later one of the three judges resigned, saying the conviction haunted him.

Yesterday Shizuoka District Court said Hakamada should be retried because items of clothing and other evidence presented by the police in court “may have been fabricated.” His layers say DNA tests on his bloodstained clothes prove the blood was not his.

Prosecutors have four days to appeal the decision.

Although Japan incarcerates fewer people than many Western countries, it has been widely condemned for what anti-gallows campaigner Nobuto Hosaka calls the “peculiar cruelties” of its death penalty.

Death row inmates are deprived of contact with the outside world, a policy designed to “avoid disturbing their peace of mind” says the Justice Ministry.

The 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. Critics say some inmates are driven insane.

When the order eventually comes, implementation is swift. The condemned have minutes to get their affairs in order before facing the noose. There is no time to say goodbye to families. Because the orders can come at any time, the inmates, in effect, live each day believing it may be their last. ?

Lawyers in Japan say courts still rely too heavily on confessions in criminal trials. Police can hold suspects for weeks. The conviction rate in Japanese courts is about 99 percent.

Amnesty international, which has campaigned for years to have Hakamada released, said yesterday it would be “callous and unfair” for prosecutors to appeal the court’s decision to free him.

“If ever there was a case that merits a retrial, this is it,” said Roseann Rife, Amnesty’s East Asia Research Director. “The Japanese authorities should be ashamed of the barbaric treatment Hakamada has received.”