Ichiro Ozawa, former president of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, was acquitted Thursday of conspiring with former aides to make false financial reports in his political fund management body Rikuzankai in 2004 and 2005.
The acquittal by the Tokyo District Court could signal a major turning point for the political world of Nagata-cho, as Ozawa is now expected to pull out all the stops in a bid to regain the helm of the ruling DPJ.
His prime target will be Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, the current DPJ president, and Noda’s key bill to double the consumption tax to 10 percent by 2015.
Thursday’s ruling was the first involving a politician facing charges after a citizen panel overrode a decision by prosecutors not to indict.
The powerful DPJ veteran maintained his innocence throughout his trial, which began in October. Court-appointed lawyers serving as prosecutors sought a three-year prison term without labor for Ozawa.
The DPJ kingpin expressed happiness over the acquittal.
“Today’s ruling is in line with what I have been stating all this time — that I did not conspire (with the former secretaries) to make false entries,” he said in a statement.
“I would like to honor the court for being sensible and fair and would like to express my gratitude to my comrades and the people all over Japan for their support up to today.”
The court-appointed lawyers said they will review the ruling and decide whether to file an appeal in the next two weeks.
The focus of the trial was whether the DPJ powerbroker knowingly conspired with his former aides to falsify Rikuzankai’s reports over a ¥400 million land deal in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. The ex-secretaries, Tomohiro Ishikawa, Mitsutomo Ikeda and Takanori Okubo, were found guilty in a separate trial in September and all three have appealed the verdict. All received suspended prison sentences.
Presiding Judge Fumio Daizen ruled that even though there were grounds to the court-appointed lawyers’ argument that Ozawa was involved in the conspiracy, evidence was lacking.
“The court-appointed lawyers bore the responsibility of proving the defendant’s criminal intent, but in this case, they did not establish (Ozawa’s guilt), leaving behind reasonable doubt,” Daizen said.
Without evidence of criminal intent, “I must state that the defendant cannot be held criminally accountable by law.”
News of Ozawa’s acquittal quickly spread throughout Nagata-cho, triggering mixed reactions. Allies applauded the news, while the opposition camp looks ready to attack Ozawa, since his acquittal does not change the fact that three of his former aides were convicted of violating the political funds law last fall.
Meanwhile, DPJ executives and top government officials, including Noda and Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura, remained reserved.
“I accept it as a judicatory judgment,” Noda told reporters, adding he would leave it up to the DPJ leadership whether to lift the suspension of Ozawa’s party membership that followed his indictment in January 2011.
Reporters stampeded out of the courtroom Thursday morning upon Daizen’s declaration of Ozawa’s innocence to spread the news, prompting the judge to repeat the verdict to make sure Ozawa heard it.
“The defendant is found innocent. Do you understand?” Daizen asked Ozawa, who answered in a clear, steady voice, “Yes.”
In the ruling, which took 2 hours and 25 minutes to read out, Daizen pointed out that parts of Ozawa’s testimony were questionable, including how the kingpin repeatedly insisted he never looked at his political funds reports.
“There were some points where the defendant’s testimony shifted or was unnatural,” Daizen said. “I must say that generally speaking, his testimony . . . that he has never been told about the deal or the contents of the funds reports upon their drafting or submission, lacks credibility.”
Meanwhile, the court ruled that Ishikawa broke the law by not entering the ¥400 million used to purchase the land in the 2004 funds report, and instead reported it a year later to avoid media attention during a politically sensitive time when Ozawa was getting ready to run in an upcoming DPJ presidential poll.
“If reported and disclosed (in the 2004 report), the defendant may very well have been pursued by the media and become the object of criticism. . . . It can be said that there was a strong possibility that defendant’s political career would have suffered a disadvantage,” Daizen said, explaining the court’s decision regarding Ishikawa’s motives.
But Daizen said the court recognized that there was no direct evidence to prove Ozawa conspired with the former secretaries with criminal intent.
“There is possibility that Ishikawa and others did not report to Ozawa and get his approval on the details that are considered illegal, and that Ozawa was unaware of these facts,” Daizen said.
Ozawa’s victory was partly influenced by the court’s decision in February to reject key depositions made by the former aides that supported the court-appointed lawyers’ argument after finding that prosecutors had used illegal tactics to pressure Ishikawa into sticking to a false confession that implicated his boss.
On Thursday, Daizen once again slammed the prosecutors, saying such acts are “inexcusable.”