Penalizing the plotting of crimes

The Abe administration’s move to amend the law against organized crime to make it criminally punishable for people to plot and prepare a crime — without actually committing the act — must be scrutinized due to concerns over the risk of abuse by investigative authorities. The administration also needs to address worries that people’s lives would become subject to broader surveillance by investigators as they seek to thwart crimes before they take place.

The government’s past bills to make it punishable for people to merely conspire to commit a range of serious crimes — which it said was essential for Japan to join a 2000 United Nations treaty aimed at fighting cross-border organized crimes — met with broad criticism and were scrapped each time they were submitted to the Diet in the early 2000s.

The Abe administration says the legislation it is preparing for the current Diet session is entirely different in that it seeks to punish people not just for plotting to commit a crime but for making actual preparations for the crime, such as raising funds and procuring weapons. It is now billed as legislation to penalize “preparing for terrorism and other acts.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who calls it “totally inaccurate” to label the planned legislation a “conspiracy crime” bill, claims that Japan cannot host the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo without enacting the legislation and joining the U.N. convention.

The vague references to “groups” as the target in past bills led to criticism and concern that the legislation could be used to crack down on the activities of citizens’ groups or labor unions. The new legislation purports to limit its targets to “organized crime groups,” and government officials emphasize that it’s unthinkable ordinary citizens would be investigated or punished. In trying to revive such legislation in the form of an anti-terrorism bill that is needed as Japan prepares to host the 2020 Olympics, the Abe administration appears ready to be flexible, especially to win the support of Komeito, the Liberal Democratic Party’s ruling coalition partner.

The previous bills made it punishable for people to conspire to commit more than 600 types of crimes — in line with a provision in the U.N. convention calling for penalizing the act of plotting crimes that are punishable by a prison term of four years or longer. The government is reportedly considering significantly reducing the number of targeted crimes — by eliminating crimes that cannot be considered related to terrorism or those that by their very nature cannot be plotted, such as accidental homicide or assault causing death.

A broad definition of the targets and the wide scope of crimes covered by the earlier government bills raised concerns that investigative authorities might abuse the “conspiracy crime” provision to crack down on aspects of civic life unrelated to crimes. By restricting the target to “organized crime groups” and adding the requirement needed for punishment, officials may claim there will be no room for abuse by investigators. Critics say there would remain a risk that investigators could broadly interpret the legal provisions at their own discretion, noting that it would be left in the hands of investigation authorities to determine what constitutes “organized crime groups.” If the legislation is submitted to the Diet, it should be scrutinized to see if such concerns are really unwarranted rather than relying on how officials characterize the legislation.

The government says it’s a disgrace that Japan remains among a mere handful of countries that have yet to join the U.N. convention — which has been concluded by more than 180 nations — because it lacks the necessary domestic legislation. Opponents, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, say Japan should be able to conclude the treaty without new legislation since the nation already has legal provisions to crack down on organized crimes in their planning stages. The Penal Code provides for punishing people for preparing to commit a range of heinous crimes such as murder and arson. Whether the existing provisions are indeed insufficient to fight terrorism should be fully discussed in the Diet.

It is important for the nation to beef up its defense against terrorism. But the very nature of the legislation — which seeks to punish people for plotting and preparing to commit crimes, even without carrying out the acts — would require investigators to step up surveillance of people’s lives. To obtain evidence that a group of people are conspiring to commit offenses, investigators would need to keep the group’s members under constant surveillance, by such means as tapping their phones, scanning their email, and collecting and analyzing images captured by street surveillance cameras.

A recent amendment to the law on wiretapping — as part of the measures to beef up police investigation tools — significantly expanded the scope of crimes against which wiretapping can be used. The government should not dismiss concerns that penalizing the act of plotting and preparing for crimes would entail placing society under greater surveillance by investigation authorities, including the expanded use of wiretapping and bugging.