Tokyo minister under fire after executions

TOKYO (Reuter) - Masaharu Gotoda, the Justice Minister, who is reported to have ordered Japan's first executions since 1989, said yesterday that the nation was not ready to abolish capital punishment.

Media reports on Saturday said at least two, and perhaps several more, convicted murderers had been hanged in Japanese prisons the previous day. Human rights groups immediately protested.

Amnesty International said yesterday it had sent a letter to Mr Gotoda to protest at the carrying out of the executions. 'We can never justify that the state takes people's lives,' the Japan chapter of the international human rights organisation said in the letter. 'We hereby strongly request that the government suspend executions and implement concrete measures to abolish capital punishment as soon as possible.'

The government does not announce executions but Mr Goto da's comments in parliament yesterday appeared to confirm that some took place. The Justice Minister said the death penalty 'as an institution' should be reviewed but, he added, 'I do not think Japan is ready for its abolition . . . judges have passed down death sentences, and it is not for me to make a political decision on that.'

Of his predecessors, Mr Goto da commented: 'If they (did not authorise the executions) because of personal beliefs or philosophy, or religious reasons, it was a mistake for them to have accepted the post.'

Also in parliament yesterday, a senior Justice Ministry official said the government did not announce executions out of consideration for surviving family members. He said the policy was also motivated by concern for how the news might affect other convicts on death row.

Since 1945, more than 580 criminals have been hanged in Japan, Amnesty said. The number of prisoners recently confirmed to be on death row was 58. Among leading indus trialised countries, only Japan and the United States still execute criminals.