Japanese media get tour of death chamber

Execution room, Tokyo Detention Centre, 27 August 2010
Image caption Prisoners are not given a date for execution and their relatives are only told after the hanging

Japanese media representatives have for the first time been allowed into the execution chamber at a Tokyo jail.

Local TV stations broadcast footage showing the room where death row inmates are hanged.

Analysts say the move is expected to stir public debate over the use of the death penalty in Japan, which is criticised by human rights groups.

Japan's justice minister opposes the death penalty, but official surveys suggest strong public backing for it.

"This reporting opportunity will provide information for public debate on the death penalty system," Keiko Chiba told a news conference.

Pressing the button

The 30-minute tour showed the red square on the floor where a convict stands with a noose around their neck before the trapdoor opens beneath them.

The visitors were also taken to a room with a Buddhist altar where condemned prisoners can meet a religious representative, and the viewing chamber.

"There was the smell of incense. The impression was that of sterile objects in a clean, carpeted room," said a reporter from broadcaster NTV.

Footage also showed the room where three staff each push a button which releases the trapdoor - although none knows who actually instigated the action.

Image caption Keiko Chiba is the first Japanese justice minister to have attended an execution

The noose was not shown.

Japan hanged two death row inmates in July, in the first executions since the new government took power last year.

Ms Chiba witnessed the executions at the Tokyo Detention Centre and announced the formation of a group to review the death penalty.

Her appointment last September - when the new Democratic Party-led government came to power - was seen as a sign that debate could be opened on the issue.

There is also concern because a new lay judge system could allow ordinary citizens, as well as professional judges, to issue death penalties.

A total of 107 inmates remain on death row in Japan. Prisoners are usually executed two or three at a time.

Last year, a report from rights group Amnesty International called for an immediate moratorium on executions in Japan, saying that harsh conditions on death row were driving inmates insane.

Prisoners are not told when they will be executed and their relatives are told only after the sentence has been carried out.

Official government figures recently issued in Japan put public support for capital punishment at well over 80%.

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