Long reach of ‘conspiracy crime’ bill

The government should stop emphasizing that “ordinary people” would never be targeted by the legislation being prepared to penalize the acts of plotting and preparing for crimes without carrying them out. The Justice Ministry now explains that a group that engaged in legitimate activities can be punished under the law if its purpose has changed to criminal acts. That judgment will likely rest with the investigation authorities, and to make such a judgment they will need to investigate such a group.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says that members of such a group cannot possibly be called “ordinary people” if its purpose has turned criminal. He cites the example of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which engaged in murderous acts including a sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subways in 1995, noting that Aum had initially been recognized by the government as a religious organization prior to it turning into a criminal group. True, ordinary people can engage in criminal acts. But then it’s misleading to claim that “ordinary” citizens — the definition of which is vague from the beginning — would never be targeted.

The Abe administration has ruled out the possibility of ordinary citizens being targeted by the planned legislation in its attempt to give the impression that it will be entirely different from the government’s past aborted bills to make it punishable for people to conspire to commit a crime without actually carrying it out. Officials say the legislation will penalize the acts of making actual preparations to commit a crime, as opposed to merely plotting to commit the crime. Since the past bills came under severe criticism and opposition because their target was broadly defined as “groups” — which the opponents said may include civic groups and labor unions — the latest version of the bill purports to target “organized crime groups.” The administration calls it legislation to penalize preparing for “terrorism and other” crimes to cast it as an anti-terrorism measure that the nation needs before it hosts the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The government earlier stated that ordinary citizens would not be targeted because the legislation is aimed solely against organizations such as crime syndicates — that the targets would be restricted to groups that are established for the very purpose of engaging in criminal acts, and that ordinary groups such as business enterprises and labor unions would be excluded. The position of the Justice Ministry suggests that such distinctions can become blurred.

Under the planned legislation, the very nature of seeking to punish people for crimes in their planning stages would remain unchanged. In an opinion paper submitted to the justice minister opposing the legislation, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations points out that investigations that crack down on the act of planning crimes would need to collect information on exchanges between people taking part in the act such as conversations, telephone calls and emails — and that the legislation, if enacted, could trigger calls for expanding the scope of wiretapping in police investigations and even the bugging of rooms to record conversations between the subjects of investigation — a prospect that will have “no small impact” on the human rights of citizens.

That concern sounds legitimate because to crack down on the planning of a crime, investigators would need to keep suspected groups under constant surveillance. The government has already expanded the scope of wiretapping in police investigations and eased the conditions for investigators to mobilize such tools. The bar federation makes a valid point when it also says that groups could become targets of investigation when they plan crimes, even though they would have to have actually made preparations for the acts to be penalized under the legislation.

The government has said the legislation is essential for Japan to join the United Nations treaty against cross-border organized crimes, which calls on nations to penalize the plotting of grave offenses. But according to the Justice Ministry, Japan already has legal provisions to punish people for plotting and preparing for 66 types of crimes. The bar federation said the nation has sufficient legal provisions to join the U.N. convention without enacting a new blanket law that penalizes the acts of plotting and preparing for a broad range of crimes. The opposition Democratic Party also makes a similar argument and says that additional legislative steps should be limited to the minimum where necessary. The government’s argument that such steps would be insufficient as the nation seeks to fight terrorism is not convincing. It should come up with specific explanations on how the current legal provisions are not enough and why their supposed shortcoming cannot be addressed by individually amending them.