Transparent interrogations

Discussions by the Legislative Council on electronic recording of interrogations of suspects in criminal cases have dragged on for 2½ years without a conclusion. Police and prosecution officials remain opposed to the mandatory recording of the process because they view it as hindering an investigation tool.

Opponents need to recognize the fact that a number of people have been falsely charged after being interrogated behind closed doors, where there are no objective means of verifying whether they have been questioned in appropriate ways.

Members of the Legislative Council, which is an advisory panel to the justice minister, have been sharply divided from the beginning of the discussions that started in June 2011. Lawyers and other experts called for audiovisual recording of the entire interrogation process while senior police and prosecution officials insisted that such recordings should be limited.

An interim report compiled by the panel in January 2013 laid out two separate draft plans. One would require full electronic recording of a suspect’s interrogation in cases subject to lay judge trials — except in some cases including those involving crimes by mobsters. The other plan would leave it up to the discretion of investigators whether to electronically record interrogations. Proponents call for recording the entire interrogation process with as few exceptions as possible.

Panel members representing the police and prosecutors argue that investigators should have discretion over which part of an interrogation to record. They argue that the interrogation function as an investigation tool would be compromised if the entire process were recorded. To compensate for what they say would be a less effective interrogation function, they demand expanded wiretapping powers to cover a wider scope of criminal cases.

Opponents of electronically recording interrogations sound oblivious as to why they is needed. In one of the cases that triggered the calls for such requirement, Toshikazu Sugaya was convicted of the 1990 murder of a girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, after being coerced by investigators to confess to the charge during interrogation. Although he later retracted his confession at trial, he was imprisoned for 18 years until new DNA tests proved his innocence and led to his release in 2009.

Atsuko Muraki, a senior Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry official arrested and charged with falsifying public documents in 2009, was acquitted in court after judges determined that the colleague who implicated her in his deposition had likely been guided by prosecutors’ leading questions. Electronic recording of interrogations is meant to ensure transparency in the process and to prevent the recurrence of wrongful charges filed as a result of inappropriate questioning behind closed doors.

Still, the police and the prosecutors appear to give priority to their own interests in investigations. They argue that the knowledge that the entire interrogation process would be recorded could prompt suspects to clam up. They say audiovisual recording should be required only when investigators read out a deposition to suspects and that investigators should only “make efforts” to electronically record the parts of interrogations crucial to demonstrating that the suspects spoke on their own accord. But they should explain why full transparency in interrogations would be a liability if suspects are questioned in proper ways.

It is time to expedite the advisory panel discussions and move forward to the day when the entire interrogation process, in principle, is recorded electronically.