I spent 34 years on Japan's Death Row

Those awaiting execution in Japan's prisons live in terror that each day could be their last – and that they'll have only minutes to prepare themselves for the gallows. David McNeill meets an innocent survivor of the system

When his body isn't groaning under the weight of its 83 years, and the sun is shining over his native Kyushu in southern Japan, Sakae Menda sometimes forgets the ordeal he suffered and knows he is lucky to be alive. But most days, there is no forgetting that the Japanese state stole 34 years of his life as retribution for a crime that he didn't commit, nor that he thought every one of those 12,410 days would be his last. "Waiting to die is a kind of torture," he says, "worse than death itself."

Mr Menda was the first man freed from Japan's Death Row, which has come in for withering criticism in a new report from Amnesty International. Inmates have been driven toward insanity while awaiting execution, says the human-rights body, and at least five of Japan's 102 condemned prisoners are mentally ill. Many more elderly inmates are on the brink of senility, but details are sparse.

"The government has a policy of not allowing access to prisoners on Death Row and denied [our] request for access," says Amnesty, which calls the system "shameful".

Death penalty opponents say Japan is bucking a worldwide trend toward abolition. Although it incarcerates just one third the number of its citizens less than the UK, Japan's astonishing 99 per cent conviction rate means that the condemned certainly include innocent men like Mr Menda, say campaigners. "There is little doubt that there are more Mendas inside our jails," says the prison-guard-turned-lawyer Yoshikuni Noguchi.

Inmates are deprived of contact with the outside world, 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 literally minutes to get their affairs in order before facing the noose. Because the order can come at any time, they live each day believing it may be their last, recalls Mr Menda, who was framed by the police for a double murder.

Early on 30 December 1948, a killer broke into the house of a priest and his wife near Mr Menda's home and used a knife and an axe to murder them. The killer could have been anyone – but penniless, uneducated farmhand Mr Menda was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and was arrested over a separate crime of stealing rice. The police held him for three weeks, without allowing him access to a lawyer, until they extracted a confession. Convicted in 1951, he wouldn't step outside Fukuoka prison until he was finally declared innocent in 1983.

Life shrank to a 5 sq metre, unheated, solitary cell that was lit day and night and monitored constantly. Mr Menda tells of hearing from his cell for the first time one of his fellow inmates dragged to the gallows. It was an event, he says, that made him "insane", and caused him to scream so long that he was awarded chobatsu (punishment) – in that case, two months with his hands cuffed so he had to eat like an animal.

Every morning, though, after breakfast – when the execution squads would come – the terror of this being his last day began afresh. "The guards would stop at your door, your heart would pound and then they would move on and you could breathe again," he vividly recalls. Mr Menda would watch dozens more inmates carted off to the gallows.

"The men would yell out as they left: 'I will be going first and will be waiting for you'," he says. Mr Menda's wife Tamae calls it a "miracle" he stayed sane. "He is very short-tempered and stubborn," she says. "I think he survived because he wasn't educated and couldn't make sense of what he was going through."

Amnesty's UK director Kate Allen last week called the system a "regime of silence, isolation and sheer non-existence", singling out the same-day execution notice as "utterly cruel". The hangmen are undeterred by age, senility or handicap: the condemned include 83-year-old Masaru Okunishi, who has protested his innocence of poisoning five women for over four decades. Amnesty says 32 people have been hanged since January 2006.

Polls show little support for abolition. A 2005 survey found over 80 per cent of Japanese people "in favour" of executions (in "unavoidable circumstances"), a rise of over 23 per cent since the mid 1970s. Abolitionists hope that the incoming Democratic government of Yukio Hatoyama will debate scrapping the death penalty.

But Mr Menda remains pessimistic. "When I was released, people took up the cause [of abolition] but lost interest. Japanese democracy is only 60 years old. The concept of human rights is not ingrained in our history," he says. Mr Noguchi, who left the prison service to practise law in 1980, believes reform is long overdue. "The system has become even worse than 30 years ago. Regulations over contact with the outside world, including letters and meetings with family, have become stricter. The condemned used to be given 24 hours' notice before execution; now they only get a few hours."

More than two decades of freedom have not dimmed Mr Menda's hatred for the police and judiciary. He points out that the system that tore his life apart is still unchanged: the police can still hold a criminal suspect for 23 days without any judicial oversight; confessions still carry enormous weight, with over 99 per cent of criminal charges ending in victory for the prosecution – and the condemned are still kept in solitary confinement with virtually no chance of a reprieve.

"The powerful have the upper hand here," he says. "I went to see the police when I was released, and I asked them how they felt about what they did to me. They told me they were just doing their job."

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