TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese court on Thursday ordered the release and a retrial of an ageing prisoner accused of murder who served on death row for over 30 years, amid doubts about the evidence used to convict him.
Japan and the United States are the only two Group of Seven rich nations to maintain capital punishment and the death penalty has overwhelming support among ordinary Japanese.
Capital punishment is carried out by hanging and prisoners do not know the date until the morning of the day they are executed. For decades, Japan did not even officially announce that capital sentences had been carried out.
Iwao Hakamada, 78 and in declining health, was accused in 1966 of killing four people, including two children, and burning down their house in a case that soon became a cause celebre.
Though he briefly admitted to the killing, he retracted this and pleaded innocent during his trial, but was sentenced to death in 1968. The sentence was upheld by the Japanese Supreme Court in 1980 and Hakamada is believed to be the world's longest-serving death row inmate.
Hakamada's lawyers argued that DNA tests on bloodstained clothing said to be their client's showed that the blood was not his. That prompted presiding judge Hiroaki Murayama to revoke the death sentence and order Hakamada's release pending the retrial, terming the original verdict an injustice.
Hakamado's sister Hideko, who battled for decades to clear the name of her younger brother, now said to be showing signs of dementia, hailed the ruling.
"I want to see him as soon as I can and tell him, 'You really persevered,'" she told a news conference. "I want to tell him that very soon now, he will be free."
Prosecutors, quoted by media, said they would appeal the ruling.
Nearly 86 percent of Japanese feel that keeping the death penalty is "unavoidable," according to a government survey conducted late in 2010, and there has been little public debate. Experts say extensive media coverage of crime and worries about safety are behind the support.
Opponents point to the chance of innocent people being executed given that confessions form the basis of most convictions, with police often accused of using harsh tactics to obtain them.
Eight people were put to death in Japan in 2013, and there are believed to be nearly 130 on death row.
(Reporting by Elaine Lies, editing by Ron Popeski)