Reform panel pulls its punches

Aspecial panel of the Legislative Council, an advisory organ for the justice minister, on Feb. 8 submitted an interim report on reform of the criminal justice system to the council. Despite 1½ years of discussions, the report appears to have forgotten the most important goal: how to prevent false charges from being filed against innocent people. In discussing concrete points to be implemented for the reform, the council should give priority to preventing false charges through fair investigations and trials.

It is regrettable that the interim report did not come out with a straightforward proposal to institutionalize electronic recordings of the entire interrogation of suspects — the main theme of the reform. Instead, it included two proposals: one to electronically record the entire interrogation process and the other to leave police officers and public prosecutors with some discretion in deciding on electronic recordings.

This is bizarre as it is the latter method that leads to the use of abusive interrogation practices that generate false confessions. As the aim of the reform is to enforce a mechanism that ensures that investigators carry out fair and proper investigation, it runs counter to reason to leave the question of whether to record interrogations to the discretion of investigators.

During discussions by the panel members, opinions in general supported the electronic recording of the entire interrogation process. But panel members who formerly served as police officers vehemently opposed the idea. Clearly the interim report was written as a face-saving gesture for these opponents of reform.

The council should treat the first proposal for electronically recording the entire interrogation process as the basis for discussions. While upholding the principle of electronically recording the entire process, council members should discuss how to deal with such factors as the possibility that a person interrogated may face retaliation from a party involved in the case and the need to protect the privacy of victims of sex crimes.

The first proposal in the interim report said that only suspects involved in cases that must be handled by lay judge trials should have their entire interrogations electronically recorded. But this scope of application is narrower than what is presently being used by the police and the prosecution in cases that are serving as a trial for the electronic recording of interrogations. A famous case involving a false charge being brought against former health and welfare ministry bureau chief Ms. Atsuko Muraki — which led to public calls for electronically recording the entire interrogation process — would fall outside the latest proposed scope of application.

The council should aim, in principle, to have all cases electronically recorded in their entirety and consider having the same done for testimony from witnesses. At the very least, the interrogation of a person whom the police treat as a witness before arrest as a suspect should be electronically recorded in its entirety.