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Ministry panel backpedals on promise to revamp justice system

Recording of interrogations to be minimal under proposals, while wiretapping will be expanded

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Despite growing criticism of the notoriously opaque criminal justice system, a Justice Ministry panel tasked with revamping it concluded three years of work Wednesday by deciding not to back mandatory recording of all criminal interrogations, while recommending that law enforcement be given a freer hand in pursuing controversial information-gathering tactics.

The panel’s conclusions appear to be at odds with its original vow to bring Japan’s criminal justice system “up to date” and roll back reliance on confessions as a means of securing prosecutions.

It proposed requiring recordings in only about 3 percent of all interrogations, such as those related to serious cases that will be deliberated by lay judges, such as murder and arson.

If enacted into law, the recommendations would nevertheless mark the first time in Japan that recordings of criminal interrogations have been made mandatory. Under the current system, recording interrogations is not obligatory and is conducted on a purely voluntary basis.

To stave off criticism of what appears to be watered-down recommendations, the panel adopted a supplementary resolution expressing its “strong hope” that authorities will choose to “record as wide a range of (interrogations) as possible,” outside those strictly mandated by the ministry.

It also said that the proposed system of mandated recordings should be reviewed after “a certain period of time” for possible tweaks. The supplementary resolution, however, is not legally binding.

The panel, called the Legislative Council, was set up in 2010 following a high-profile scandal in which welfare ministry official Atsuko Muraki was wrongfully arrested and indicted for fraud based on altered evidence. After Muraki was exonerated of all charges, she was appointed to the panel.

During Wednesday’s session, Muraki slammed the narrower-than-expected scope of mandatory recordings as “regrettable,” but nonetheless described the move as a “huge stride toward” overhauling the justice system.

“Although I have to say the reform is still far from over, I sincerely hope these changes will be implemented as soon as possible,” Muraki said, adding the fact remains that “interrogations of suspects must be done in a way that makes their confessions absolutely voluntary and trustworthy.”

The panel also decided to recommend a plea bargain system that would help authorities combat organized crime by providing legal incentives, including reduced sentences and even immunity from prosecution, for suspects who cooperate in identifying ringleaders of criminal operations such as bribery, tax evasion and drug trafficking.

The incentives would be conditional on the suspect providing accurate information, with a sentence of up to five years for those found to have given false testimony.

Although likely to help authorities better navigate the increasingly complex world of white-collar crimes, as well as more traditional yakuza-style operations, some fear such a system would encourage suspects to falsely implicate others to secure lighter sentences for themselves.

A further major change was proposed to the contentious wiretapping law, which the panel decided to expand, allowing eavesdropping not only for investigations involving drug trafficking and arms dealing, but also murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, fraud and child pornography.

The Justice Ministry is expected to submit related bills to the Diet early next year based on the panel’s proposals.

  • Stephen Kent

    Did the panel say exactly why they didn’t recommend that all interrogations be recorded? Given how ubiquitous and inexpensive recording technology is now I feel there is absolutely no reason that everything in the investigation process should not be recorded, stored, and made available for later analysis if necessary. That this panel has come up with such weak recommendations after three years for a country that still practices the death penalty yet has a notoriously opaque criminal investigation system implemented by incompetent law enforcement agencies who often have vested interests in securing prosecutions is in itself a crime in my opinion.

    So recently that’s a shady national secrets act, expanded room for military action, and now probably increased spying. When will we see some positive legislative changes befitting of a democracy I wonder.

  • Steve Jackman

    Japan’s justice system is way behind the rest of the developed world for both, criminal and civil cases. Japanese judges often twist, bend and reinterpret laws to suit their own biases, prejudices and personal agendas. This is why it suits them to not have interrogations recorded, since it gives them much more leeway in deciding cases.

    Some Japanese judges even conspire and participate in breaking Japanese laws and court rules when it comes to tape recordings of court proceedings. I know of a specific case where a foreign plaintiff sued his Japanese employer (a very large Japanese company) for illegally breaking his terms of employment. Both, the foreign plaintiff and the Japanese defendent testified in the Tokyo District Court, and their oral testimonies were recorded by the court. A few weeks later, the foreign pliantiff received the court’s written record of the oral testimonies and was shocked to see that they had been extensively doctored and falsified by the Tokyo District Court. He knows this with certainty, since he made his own tape recording of the oral testimonies in court.

    In it’s written record of the oral testimonies by the plaintiff and the defendent, the Tokyo District Court deliberately omitted several key statements, added new statements which were never part of the oral testimonies and twisted around several other statements. All of these falsifications by the court were deliberate and one sided in that they damaged only the foreign plaintiff’s case.

    What was even more shocking was that after the pliantiff objected to the falsification of the oral testimony, the Tokyo District Court quickly destroyed its tape which contained the audio record of the oral testimony made in court. The court destroyed its audio record of the testimony less than six months after the date of the testimony and while the judge’s decision on the legal case was still pending in the Tokyo District Court. In doing so, the court broke its own rules, since it is supposed to preserve this record of the court proceedings for many years.

    The Tokyo District Court judge extensively used the court’s falsified written record of the plaintiff’s oral testimony in court in his final judgment against the plaintiff. Even the Tokyo High Court subsequently rejected the plaintiff’s appeal, which the plaintiff had based partly on the Tokyo District Court’s intentional, illegal and malicious falsification of his oral testimony.

    As this case shows, recording of interrogations and court testimony is of limited use if the Japanese courts are corrupt and when they are prepared to go even as far as to deliberately falsify court documents and destroy tapes containing audio records of testimony made in court.

    • Gordon Graham

      I suggest your friend go to the media with his case. I’m sure they’d be very anxious to get ahold of such a sensational tale. How exactly was your friend’s tape destroyed? Did they rip it out of his hands in the courtroom? In any case I’m certain the media would be all over this story. Are you getting any of this Mr.moderator?

      • Steve Jackman

        If your’re interested in finding out more about corruption in the Japanese judicial system, I suggest you read the recently published book, “Zetsubo no Sainbansho” (Courts Without Hope), written by former judge Segi. His expose about corruption in the Japanese judicial system was largely responsible for the Chief Justice of the Japan Supreme Court taking early retirement a few months ago.

      • Gordon Graham

        If it’s as bad as you say it is then I apologise.

      • Steve Jackman

        “If it’s as bad as you say it is then I apologise”. Apology accepted, Gordon.