UPDATE (Japan): Detainee waiting 41 years on death row must be set free


Urgent Appeal Case: AHRC-UAU-018-2010
ISSUES: Administration of justice, Death penalty,

Dear friends, 

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received updated information concerning the case of 84-year-old Mr. Masaru Okunishi, who has been detained on Japan’s infamous death row for the past 41 years. Okunishi was accused of murder in 1961 and acquitted by the trial court in 1964 yet was sentenced to capital punishment in 1969. Although he has filed a series of motions for re-trial over the 40 years the court has not re-opened the case. 

On 5 April 2010 the Supreme Court returned the case to the Nagoya High Court, requesting that the High Court consider whether a retrial should be held. Critics have deemed this act too little too late, and claim that Okunishi should have been set free based on the fundamental principle of the presumption of innocence. Remanding the case has only caused a further delay of justice for someone of such advanced years. The case has also exposed a number of flaws of the criminal justice system in Japan, namely the uncommonly high 99% conviction rate and the policy of not telling inmates the date of their execution, leaving them in a permanent state of fear. Please call for this case and these issues to be brought to the attention of the High Commissioner on Human Rights who will visit Japan this week. 


On 5 April 2010 the Supreme Court of Japan reversed the finding of the Nagoya High Court and remanded this case to the High Court, ordering it to investigate the scientific evidence in detail. The case history is available at UA-273-2007

Okunishi was convicted in 1969 despite his acquittal by trial court in 1964. Although his motion for retrial was approved by the Nagoya High Court in 2005 based on serious doubts about the conviction, a branch of the High Court reversed the decision in 2006. 

The remand of the case to the High Court to consider a retrial is a positive move, however the Supreme Court has not fully appreciated the situation of the detainee: namely that he is 84 years old and has been in custody for the past 41 years, throughout which he has protested his innocence. It should be noted that Japan maintains a policy of not telling death row inmates the date of their execution until the day itself. To force someone to spend years, if not decades, in this state of mortal fear is unnecessary, immeasurably cruel and can be solidly categorised as mental torture. 

This case also exposes several problems within the Japanese criminal justice system. Although domestic law prescribes to the principle of innocence presumed, the conviction rate in Japan is more than 99 percent. Even if an accused is acquitted, the prosecutor has the power to appeal on the ground of ‘error in the appreciation of facts’. Therefore despite Okunishi twice having had a decision in his favour he has been kept on death row. 

Although the Supreme Court expressed serious doubts about the 2006 decision by the High Court to reverse the 2005 re-trial order, it merely remanded the case. It did not order a re-trial itself. Considering the age of the detainee the delay of justice is tantamount to a denial of justice. 

In addition to this there are strong grounds to reopen the case based on the contradictions in the prosecution’s evidence. Experts argue that this was not conclusive enough to convict Okunishi – an argument held valid by the Supreme Court when it remanded the case to the High Court. It is also argued that the confession statements made during the custodial interrogation in April 1961 were false – extracted under pressure without any access to or presence of a lawyer – and that the prosecution has not disclosed a large amount of its evidence to the defence or in the court, including some exculpatory evidence. 

If the courts are in doubt over whether the evidence against Okunishi is to be re-examined, he must be set free upon the principle of the presumption of innocence until the case is resolved. 


Please send letters to the authorities named below asking for their intervention. The AHRC is writing separate letter to the High Commissioner on Human Rights, and the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment since prolonged periods of detention on death row are considered to be torture under international human rights law.

To support this case, please click here: SEND APPEAL LETTER


Dear __________, 

JAPAN: Please free Mr. Masaru Okunishi pending a decision in his case 

Name of victim: Mr. Masaru Okunishi, 84, currently detained on Death Row. 
Place of detention: Nagoya Detention Centre 
Date of incident: From March 28, 1961 

I am writing to you to express my concern regarding the case of Mr. Masaru Okunishi, a death row inmate at Nagoya Detention Centre. I am informed that Okunishi has been on death row since 1969 and is now 84 years old. 

I am aware that the charge against Okunishi is that he is alleged to have poisoned five women in his village to death by mixing pesticide in their wine. I am informed that he was acquitted by the trial court but was later found guilty of murder by the Nagoya High Court based on his confession and false forensic evidence. I am also informed that his motion for re-trial was once confirmed by the Nagoya High Court in 2005 but reversed in 2006, mainly based on his confession statement. 

I am also informed that on at least two occasions the courts in Japan have raised serious doubts regarding the reliability of the evidence used against him, and the reliability of his allegedly forced confession. I understand that the confession statement made by Okunishi was extracted from him while he was under extreme duress and is not compatible with the other circumstantial evidence in the case, while the forensic evidence used to convict him is also allegedly fabricated. I am informed that the prosecutor has not disclosed a large amount of evidence, including exculpatory evidence to the defense team of Mr. Okunishi. 

The Supreme Court of Japan has now asked the Nagoya High Court to again consider a retrial based on the new scientific evidence submitted by the defence that casts grave doubts on his conviction. At this juncture I want to express my concern for the plight of the elderly man – one who has endured decades of gruelling detention in expectation of imminent execution. Please note that Japan maintains a policy of not telling death row inmates the date of their execution until the day itself. Spending years, if not decades, in this state of mortal uncertainly is unnecessary, immeasurably cruel and can be categorised as mental torture. 

I am further informed that practices in criminal investigation and trial in Japan do not meet international standards. International human rights bodies like the UN Human Rights Committee and the UN Committee against Torture have expressed serious concerns about the pre-trial detention, custodial interrogation and the extremely high conviction rate based on confessions in Japan, and have recommended that the country bring appropriate changes to its criminal justice systems, practices and laws. 

Considering the fact that two courts and six judges have already found reasonable doubt on his conviction, and also considering his age, I call for the Nagoya High Court to immediately order a retrial and – in accordance with the principle of “presumption of innocence” – set Okunishi free until a final decision is made in his case. I request that the Court and its prosecutor consider the detainees advanced age and his prolonged period of detention. 

I am aware that the Japan Federation of Bar Associations is pursuing Okunishi’s case further to make sure that justice is finally done. I request that all the evidence, including exculpatory evidence, be immediately made available to defence lawyers in order to meet the minimum standards of a fair trial. 

I hope that my letter of concern will not be considered an interference in the process of law, but rather as an appeal to ensure justice to Mr. Masaru Okunishi. I look forward to your prompt action into this matter. 

Yours sincerely, 


1. The Nagoya High Court of Japan 
E-mail: tonagoyahighcourt@gmail.com 

2. Honourable Minister of Justice 
1-1-1 Kasumigaseki Chiyoda-ku 
Email: webmaster@moj.go.jp 

3. Nagoya Public Prosecutors’ Office 
1-1-1 Kasumigaseki 
Tokyo 100-0013 
Fax: + 81 3 3592 7692 
Email: saikoken@ppo.moj.go.jp 

4. The Senate – Judicial Committee 
1-7-1 Nagata-cho 
Tokyo 100-8961 
Email: webmaster@sangiin.go.jp 

Thank you. 
Urgent Appeals Programme 
Asian Human Rights Commission 

Document Type : Urgent Appeal Update
Document ID : AHRC-UAU-018-2010
Countries : Asia,
Issues : Administration of justice, Death penalty,