BANGKOK – It took five days for Toshi Kazama to unexpectedly awake from a coma. Someone had tried to kill him, he says, but exactly 16 years later, he still can’t remember anything about the moment someone smashed his head into the New York pavement as he was walking his daughter home from school.
“I’m a victim of a murder attempt. I survived the crime,” 60-year-old Kazama tells EFE in an interview ahead of his talk in Bangkok on the annual World Day Against the Death Penalty on Thursday, Oct. 10 – the same date of his 2003 attack.
At the time of the incident, Tokyo-born Kazama was a photographer working in United States prisons with death-row inmates. Now he uses his photos to advocate against the death penalty around the world.
When he woke up at the hospital, he feared his loved ones would be consumed by hate for the perpetrator, but he told his wife and children: “Hate the crime, but never hate the person.”
“At the time I was already doing this [photography] project and I had met so many victims’ families and I see how it’s impacted their lives. If they go into revenge mode, it only makes their life worse. No one can go on full of hatred and anger – human beings aren’t capable of it,” he said.
Kazama’s project began when he found out teenager Michael Shawn Barnes was on death row in Alabama, convicted of two gruesome murders. It took 10 months to get permission to photograph him.
“I thought maybe he’d look like a monster. But the boy who appeared in front of me was just an ordinary 16-year-old I can find anywhere – at my son’s school or something,” Kazama said.
Barnes survived death row due to the landmark 2005 US Supreme Court decision that ruled capital punishment for crimes committed while under the age of 18 unconstitutional, and is now serving a life sentence, according to Kazama.
While he makes no excuse for violent crime, Kazama says no one gains from state-sponsored execution and the punishment does not address the causes. He lists problems of ongoing pain of family members of both the victims and perpetrators, as well as of the so-called executioners, fallible justice systems and the breaching of international rights norms.
In the case of Barnes, online documents from the Court of Criminal Appeals of Alabama show he was determined to have an IQ of 78 (90-110 is average) and a brain disorder.
Often, Kazama says, death-row inmates have grown up in poor, dysfunctional households lacking love and care. Some are marginalized or have fallen through the cracks of the social system.
“In many countries, if you’re wealthy, if you’re educated, you will never be sentenced to death. This happens to uneducated and poor people who cannot afford a defense lawyer beyond a public defender,” he says.
Some are later found to be wrongfully convicted.
“I photographed a death row inmate and two years later he was found to be innocent. This is a very rare case,” Kazama adds.
He shows EFE a picture he took of a gurney in a Louisiana prison. There are two phones on the wall – one, he says, is a direct line to the governor.
“The only reason that phone is there is for the governor to call and grant a stay of execution. Five minutes before (one execution), the governor’s phone rang. Everyone applauded: ‘Yay, we don’t have to kill another human being tonight.’ When they picked up, the governor said in a drunken voice: ‘Carry on,’” he recalled being told.
Another photo shows an electric chair in the US, with burn marks from the tail bone visible on the seat. He says the chair is operated by two switches activated simultaneously by two people who don’t know which one is connected.
In Japan, “it’s a dropping floor to hanging, with five to seven buttons... Seven guards have to press them simultaneously to drop the floor so they feel less guilty,” Kazama says.
Indonesia has its firing squads, some members of which have spoken publicly about the personal toll executions take, and in Taiwan, Kazama says one person gets chosen to end the prisoner’s life – on a floor of black sand in front of a picture of Buddha.
Kazama photographed one such place in Taipei showing a final meal with a cup of sake and cigarettes, soundproofed walls and a white sheet on the floor, which the inmate must provide. The prisoner lies face-down on the sheet and if they are an organ donor, Kazama says they are shot through the neck or head. If not, they are shot through the back of the heart. The black sand doesn’t show blood and prevents bullets from ricocheting.
Kazama argues that the death penalty is politicized, with supporters, politicians and those signing death warrants too removed from the reality of those of those who have to carry them out.
“The executioner is doing all the dirty work of such a shallow idea that killing a human being or the death penalty will make society good or will help the families,” he says. “Nobody is happy killing human beings.”
As a founder of organizations for victims’ families opposing the death penalty, Kazama has seen “many, many times” families trying to stop executions of those convicted of killing their loved ones. “(Many) oppose the death penalty because it doesn’t help them,” he says.
The punishment is often looked at as a deterrent, instead of there being a focus on how to prevent violent crime.
“They only focus on punitive damage... They don’t focus on the victim’s family. They think the death penalty alone is a preventive factor, but it’s never been that way,” Kazama says.
Change needs to come from governments and while abolishing capital punishment is often met with staunch opposition, Kazama is confident that this will eventually subside.
He cites the case of France, which he says was once exercising the death penalty “very often” – “guillotines and everything” – and whose citizens mostly opposed its 1981 abolition. But now, “France opposes the death penalty, even down to the civilian level.”
In Southeast Asia, the Philippines and Cambodia are the only countries to have abolished the death penalty.
In June 2018, Thailand executed by lethal injection a 26-year-old man convicted of aggravated murder – the first in nine years.
Kazama says Myanmar is “far off” abolition and Laos is “so behind,” but Vietnam looks to be “slowly progressing,” although Amnesty International placed it as one of the world’s top five executioners in 2018.
In October last year, Malaysia announced it would abolish capital punishment, but in March it backtracked, saying it would be kept, but would no longer be mandatory.
In 2015, Indonesia executed 14 people for drug trafficking, including a Brazilian diagnosed as mentally ill, while another four were killed a year later for the same offenses. The execution of those with mental illness is prohibited under international law.
Brunei in April brought into force a new penal code based on sharia or Islamic law, including punishment for sodomy, adultery and rape through death by stoning.
Further afield in Asia, secretive China is believed to be the world’s top executioner, with figures kept a state secret. Kazama says he believes China executes by lethal injection an estimated 5,000-10,000 people a year, under what Amnesty counts as 46 capital offenses, including many that do not meet the “most serious crimes” threshold under international law – a common criticism across Asia.
In China, “the death penalty is all business,” Kazama says, referring to the harvesting of organs from executed prisoners. The country pledged in 2014 to stop the practice, saying only voluntary donations from civilians would be used. However, the independent China Tribunal in June concluded that “forced organ harvesting continues till today.”
On Thursday, the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network said in a statement that Asia has the highest number of executions in the world.
“When the state executes a person, it means another person loses a son, a father, a husband. This is the reality of the death penalty,” ADPAN said.
Kazama’s dedication to the cause has not come without a personal toll. Financially, he says things are harder, and he’s traveling 10 months of the year.
“I’m no longer a connected father or husband who spends a lot of time with my family. So it’s a struggle for me. What I’m doing internationally is for the future of my kids,” Kazama says.
Although he notes progress, such as when the US abolished the death penalty for juveniles and in Mongolia when capital punishment was thrown out in 2016, he worries about geopolitics, “terrible leaders” and the prospect of war.
“As long as I live, I cannot give up,” he says. “Next month I’m 61 and I won’t live too long. I need to see more changes.”
“What’s the last word?” he asks himself at the end of his interview with EFE, before answering: “I don’t know. I never want to say last words.”