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Pope Draws Attention To Death Penalty In Japan


Pope Francis has arrived in Japan for a four-day visit, where he is expected to call attention to the issue of capital punishment, which he contends is inhumane. Japan and the U.S. are the only G7 countries that have the death penalty.

Abigail Leonard reports from Tokyo.

ABIGAIL LEONARD, BYLINE: On Monday, the pope will hold a mass for 50,000 people in Tokyo. And he's extended a personal invitation to one man, Iwao Hakamada, thought to be the world's longest serving death row inmate.

HIDEKO HAKAMADA: (Through interpreter) I know he's innocent. I don't believe it. I know it.

LEONARD: That's Hakamada's sister, Hideko. She's 86 and has spent most of her life fighting for him. In 1966, Hakamada was arrested in the brutal killing of his boss and his boss's family. Police interrogated Hakamada for three weeks until he confessed. He retracted his confession in court but was still convicted and imprisoned for 48 years, 30 of them in solitary confinement. Every morning, he awoke at 7 to find out if that would be the day he would die by hanging.

DAVID JOHNSON: Typically, it's just an hour or two before the hanging occurs of the inmate him or herself is told that their time has come.

LEONARD: David Johnson, a sociologist at the University of Hawaii, says false confessions are a major source of wrongful convictions in Japan. Then last year, the pope said capital punishment was not Christian. And the Vatican made that its official teaching. Activists are now calling on the pope to bring up the issue with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday.

As for Hakamada, nearly 50 years after he was imprisoned, new DNA evidence showed his blood did not match blood from the crime scene. In 2014, a district court granted a re-trial and released him to his sister.

HAKAMADA: (Through interpreter) I remember that day so clearly. I was 81, and I smiled for the first time since I was 33.

LEONARD: But last June, the Tokyo High Court overturned the decision that set him free. Now the case is before the Supreme Court. If Hakamada loses, he could be re-imprisoned and executed. Hakamada's sister is hopeful international attention to his case could bring change.

HAKAMADA: Death row inmates are still human and should be treated with humanity. As for my brother, of course, I'd like the Supreme Court to say he's innocent.

LEONARD: But she says if he gets to stay out of prison, maybe that's enough. For NPR News, I'm Abigail Leonard in Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLORATONE'S "STAND BY THIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Abigail Leonard
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