Prosecutor offices flawed: experts

Systemic woes must be repaired before debacles taint legal system

by Takahiro Fukada

Unless public prosecutor’s offices are forced to submit to outside oversight, more travesties of justice like the one allegedly committed by prosecutor Tsunehiko Maeda will discredit the Japanese legal system, experts say.

People familiar with public prosecutor’s offices say they are infected with systemic problems that foster an environment in which suspects are forced into confessing to scenarios made up by the prosecutors themselves.

This is what happened to Atsuko Muraki, the senior welfare official who was apparently falsely indicted by the Osaka District Public Prosecutor’s Office in a high-profile case that unraveled last month.

Experts hope the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office will thoroughly investigate the case, which has embroiled Maeda’s superiors as well. But some are skeptical that will happen. Instead, they are suggesting that outsiders be asked to join the investigation to ensure its objectivity.

Maeda, who led an investigation into the postal abuse case, was arrested Sept. 21 on suspicion of altering data on a floppy disk seized as evidence so it would support his scenario for prosecuting Muraki in a fraud case involving abuse of the discount mail system for disabled people.

The Osaka District Court acquitted Muraki on Sept. 10 and Maeda was arrested soon after.

“It is basically about the quality of this person (Maeda),” said Yasuyuki Takai, a former public prosecutor who represented Livedoor Co. founder Takafumi Horie in his attention-grabbing trial over securities law violations.

Takai stressed that other prosecutors would never have fabricated the data the way Maeda allegedly did — even if there was intense internal pressure to convict.

Chuo University Law School professor Norio Munakata agreed.

“He might have done it, believing . . . the indictment was right and that he wanted the court to give (Muraki) a guilty sentence,” said Munakata, a lawyer and former chief of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office’s special investigative unit.

Munakata said that Maeda, who was considered a competent prosecutor, might have been conceited. “There is no one (in public prosecutor’s offices) who does this kind of thing and it is inconceivable,” he said.

However, other experts said the problem is rooted in the prosecutors’ “special units” and the way they go about their work.

Special investigation units deal mainly with white-collar offenses, including tax evasion, corporate crime and corruption involving politicians and bureaucrats.

One of the most prominent cases handled by an SIU was the Lockheed bribery case in the late 1970s, in which former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was arrested and indicted for taking bribes from the aircraft manufacturer to pressure All Nippon Airways into purchasing its aircraft.

Unlike normal cases, in which the police do the investigating and arresting and prosecutors chip in with additional research and make the decision on whether to indict, a special investigative unit takes control of everything, from the arrests to the trials.

Once a case is handed to an SIU, there is no turning back, said Nobuo Gohara, a former public prosecutor who is now a professor at Meijo University in Nagoya.

“In cases where an arrest has made a big impact on society — especially when the investigations go on to cover high-ranking figures, such as the incumbent bureau chief of the welfare ministry like this time — it is almost inconceivable for prosecutors to retreat,” Gohara said at a recent media briefing on the Internet.

Munakata also noted the lack of outside oversight that typically accompanies SIU cases.

Although the courts are responsible for examining the cases and handing down judgment, Munakata said nobody checks the investigation process before an SIU case goes to court.

“This is dangerous. Cases that are solely investigated (by prosecutors) have such systemic problems,” he said.

Muraki, the acquitted health bureaucrat, criticized the way prosecutors interrogated her during the investigation.

“No matter how much I explained, prosecutors would only draw up (reports) in the way they wanted to,” Muraki said in an interview in the October edition of Bungei Shunju magazine.

“Among the things I talked about, prosecutors would only pick up portions that they wanted to highlight for the reports they made,” she said.

Other high-profile figures who have been investigated by prosecutors have expressed similar views.

Former Lower House lawmaker Muneo Suzuki, who recently lost an appeal for a bribery conviction, was quoted in the Asahi Shimbun on Sept. 23 as saying that public prosecutors make up cases as they go along.

“What’s so scary about the public prosecutor’s office is that it makes up its own scenario, calls up witnesses and draws up reports in line with it,” Suzuki said.

Masaru Sato, a writer and a former Foreign Ministry official convicted of misusing government funds, said Maeda was probably a star in the office, according to an article in the Sept. 24 edition of the Tokyo Shimbun.

“I believe prosecutor Maeda has been regarded highly by the prosecution organization as a ‘wariya,’ or someone who can make any suspect confess his or her guilt,” Sato said.

Sato suggested that it is this kind of mentality that led to the Maeda disaster and that there is no point in just bashing one individual.

Japan is well known for its 99.9 percent conviction rate, but Takai, the lawyer who represented Livedoor founder Horie, said the reason is because prosecutors are conservative and only file accusations when guilt is virtually certain.

“When Japanese prosecutors have even a little anxiety over securing guilty verdicts, they do not indict suspects,” Takai said.

He said the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office will be able to clean up the corruption behind the Maeda debacle.

“The public prosecutor’s office . . . will calmly arrest prosecutors when it believes there are suspicions of crimes with them,” he said.

The Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office arrested two of Maeda’s supervisors Friday evening for allegedly hindering an investigation into his case.

The two supervisors allegedly knew Maeda had intentionally altered data on the seized disk.

“You can trust” the investigation of the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office, Chuo University’s Munakata said, referring to a 1993 case in which a prosecutor who reportedly used violence against a witness was arrested, indicted and fired. “This time too, prosecutors will uncover everything, possibly including the background,” Munakata said.

But Gohara still harbors suspicions.

“If the investigative team of the Supreme Public Prosecutor’s Office says it found (Maeda’s tampering) was not reported to the highest office, no one will trust that,” he said.

Gohara emphasized that the investigation should be conducted objectively so the public will accept its findings.

Gohara suggested setting up a special team consisting of lawyers with investigative experience and prosecutors to conduct a joint investigation, as well as a third-party committee to examine and evaluate the case.

To prevent similar travesties of justice from recurring, Munakata said that the higher prosecutors will need to examine how its lower offices are handling their cases, especially those involving politicians, high-ranking bureaucrats or leaders of economic circles, so the investigations will be conducted more carefully.