As the debate on counterterrorism heats up ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, some are pushing for stronger measures and others are warning against the potential for government overreach and the loss of constitutional rights.
In the Diet, the government aims to pass a bill this year to revise the organized crime law so authorities can crack down on individuals who merely conspire to commit a crime.
Although there have been three similar attempts to enact an anti-conspiracy law in the past, all failed under harsh scrutiny and were attacked for having vague criteria for determining both conspirators and their targets.
This time, the government plans to change the name of the legislation and cast it as a measure against “cross-border terrorism.”
Here is a look at the contentious bill and how an anti-conspiracy law would affect the public.
What is the nature of the bill?
Its purpose is to create an anti-conspiracy law that would allow the police to punish people who conspire and prepare to commit “serious crimes” warranting four or more years in prison.
Similar bills were submitted to the Diet in 2003, 2004 and 2005 but failed amid criticism they were prone to vague interpretation.
Because past bills had only referred to conspirators as “groups,” opponents claimed they could be used to silence citizen groups including anti-government activists, labor unions or other entities whose opinions differed from the government’s.
To avoid this, the government is looking this time to narrow down the intended targets of the legislation to those deemed by authorities as “organized crime groups.”
The targets would presumably include terrorists, gangsters and perpetrators of bank transfer scams, according to the Justice Ministry.
The government also plans to stipulate that individuals would be subject to the law only if they committed preparatory acts for crimes, such as casing a target beforehand or raising funds to commit crimes. Past bills only required the act of conspiring to be prosecuted.
Why is the government so eager to pass this bill?
The government says this kind of bill is a prerequisite for ratifying the U.N. convention against transnational organized crime.
The U.N. treaty was adopted in 2000 and took force in 2003 to crack down on organized cross-border crimes, such as human trafficking, narcotics trading and money laundering.
The Diet approved the treaty in 2003. But because Japan lacked laws that made criminal conspiracy a crime in itself, the government couldn’t ratify it, the Foreign Ministry said, adding that signing the treaty will allow Japan to take part in international efforts to combat transnational crime.
Currently, the police cannot prosecute individuals for conspiracy except in particularly serious crimes, such as illegal use of explosives.
How many charges could be filed in connection with a conspiracy?
The bill can technically apply to conspiracies involving more than 600 offenses, since the U.N. convention defines a “serious crime” as “an offense punishable by a maximum deprivation of liberty of at least four years or a more serious penalty,” according to the Justice Ministry.
These would include murder and arson but could also include offenses not overtly related to counterterrorism, including traffic and election law violations.
But the ministry insists any such law would only target “organized criminal groups” and stresses it would not affect the ordinary lives of the public.
As examples, the ministry cited scenarios that would not be subject to such a law, including workers who, over drinks, idly voice a desire to kill their boss, or activists planning a sit-in at a construction company to block the building of a new structure, or labor unionists who agree not to let a company president go home until a pay hike has been granted.
What are the main concerns with the legislation?
Even if the list of potential conspirators is narrowed, there is still a risk that investigators will abuse their powers and authority, said Motoji Kobayashi, president of the Tokyo Bar Association.
A conspiracy law will allow authorities to attack organizations they deem subversive and to disrupt their activities, Kobayashi said in a statement published earlier in January.
“The legislation will infringe on not only their freedom of association and freedom of expression, but also encroach on their freedom of thought and beliefs,” he said.
Kobayashi said the legislation also would allow investigative authorities to decide which entities count as criminal organizations. It can therefore be used to attack activists or labor unions once they are judged to have conspired to commit a crime.
Another lawyer group, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, warns that the legislation could also be used to justify the use of wiretapping and sting operations if those activities are deemed effective in cracking down on alleged conspiracies.
What is the situation overseas?
Among the Group of Eight developed nations, Japan is the only one that hasn’t signed the U.N. convention, the Foreign Ministry said.
As of Dec. 20, 187 countries and regions had signed the treaty, the ministry said.
But the JFBA pointed out that the government could name only two countries — Norway and New Zealand — that had newly enacted conspiracy laws for the purpose of ratifying the U.N. treaty.
The JFBA also asserted that Japan can sign the U.N. treaty without criminalizing conspiracies involving over 600 types of crimes.
The lawyer group said that at least five signatories — Brazil, Morocco, El Salvador, Angola and Mexico — managed to ratify the treaty without criminalizing all of the “serious crimes” outlined by the U.N.
Japan has drawn criticism from activists and opposition lawmakers who say the government’s real intention is to silence dissent. The head of the secretariat at the Japanese Communist Party, Akira Koike, compared the conspiracy bill to a prewar law that was used to clamp down on people who opposed the government’s policies at the time, under the pretext of security.