Democratic Party of Japan heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa was indicted Monday over a shady land purchase and accounting irregularities linked to his political funds management body, making him the first politician to face trial based on a decision by citizens on a prosecution inquest committee.
Ozawa, known as a backroom deal-maker, will now face intensified pressure to exit the DPJ or even give up his seat as a lawmaker. His status also further undermines the DPJ-led government, which has been distracted by the alleged wrongdoing of its former leader since the party came into power in 2009.
Speaking to reporters in the evening, Ozawa again asserted his innocence.
“I have nothing to be ashamed of. My innocence will become obvious in the trial,” he said.
Ozawa also said he won’t leave the DPJ despite mounting pressure from party leaders to do so.
“I will continue to do my utmost as a DPJ lawmaker to carry out politics that places top priority on the lives of the people,” he said.
Junichiro Hironaka, Ozawa’s lawyer, said he will strive to prove his client’s innocence. “I don’t think there is any wrongdoing or conspiracy with the people in question,” he said.
But Hironaka criticized the special citizen-based indictment system as “inappropriate” in terms of human rights, given that Ozawa couldn’t even be indicted by professional prosecutors.
The prosecution meanwhile sounded confident of victory.
“I feel satisfied that we have finally reached this point, but this is just the beginning,” Shunzo Omuro, one of the three lawyers designated to serve as a prosecutor in Ozawa’s case, told reporters in Tokyo.
Although Ozawa and three former aides, who have already been indicted and face separate trials starting this month in connection with the misreporting of funds linked to his fund-management body Rikuzankai, have refused to provide any occasion for interviews, the lawyers said they had sufficient time to review the case.
Asked if the team has gathered any new proof to substantiate their charges against Ozawa, Omuro said that he has enough facts and the indictment “does not trouble” him as a lawyer.
The three ex-aides have been indicted for allegedly violating the Political Funds Control Law and cooking the books over a land purchase made by Rikuzankai in 2004. Ozawa now stands accused of breaking the same law.
Prosecutors decided last February and May not to indict Ozawa, citing lack of evidence, but a panel of 11 citizens overrode both those decisions in October, ensuring the DPJ kingpin would have his day in court.
The investigation by the prosecutors “did not go beyond formalities,” the panel said in a statement at the time, adding it “strongly suspected” Ozawa conspired with his three subordinates in falsifying the reports.
An indictment by the citizen’s panel must be approved by at least eight of its 11 members.
Although Ozawa could face up to a five-year prison term and ¥1 million fine if found guilty, experts say it’s a long shot since prosecutors could not find solid evidence to even indict him.
But as designated prosecutors, the three lawyers said they conducted their own investigation in a different light. “We were able to see the case from a lawyer’s perspective,” attorney Michio Muramoto said.
Lawyer Kenichi Yamamoto added that their probe was not swayed by the fact they are challenging a powerful lawmaker.
“We will make an effort to win the case,” he said.
Ozawa, who has refused to testify before the Diet about his alleged financial wrongdoings, appears ready for the court battle.
He failed in an attempt to have a court block the mandatory indictment, and has repeatedly said the charges leveled by a judicial panel differ in nature from any meted out by prosecutors, hinting he thus intends to remain in the DPJ and snub all calls for him to resign as a lawmaker.
Ozawa was the DPJ president until spring 2009, when he bowed out, also due to a funds scandal. He was replaced by Yukio Hatoyama, who led the party to its historic election win that year.
Hatoyama abruptly resigned last summer, also amid scandal, and was replaced by Naoto Kan, who last September prevailed over Ozawa in the DPJ presidential election to retain the government helm.
Ozawa’s indictment will likely deal another blow to Kan’s ruling DPJ, as it struggles to decide whether to cut ties with the don or downplay the situation, considering his allies in the party. Kan has indicated he may press Ozawa to leave the party.
Pundits say Kan may even suspend Ozawa’s DPJ membership if he refuses to exit, a move that could lead to a change in the political landscape in the coming months if the don’s allies also bolt from the ruling party.
Facing reporters Monday night, Kan sounded disappointed but refused to make any rash comments on Ozawa’s indictment. He said the DPJ’s executives would discuss the party’s response and that DPJ Secretary General Katsuya Okada would play a central role in any decisions on the matter.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano also refused to comment on Ozawa’s situation, except to say that a lawmaker’s course of action must be made individually.
Pundits say that it could be months before Ozawa goes to trial and likely over a year before a verdict is reached.