Fast-tracking the ‘conspiracy crime’ bill

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition looks ready to push the controversial amendment to the law against organized crimes — which would penalize people for merely conspiring and preparing to commit nearly 300 types of crimes — through the Lower House as early as this week amid an opposition outcry and sharply divided public opinion. The Liberal Democratic Party-Komeito alliance seems to think that the legislation has been sufficiently deliberated, but it appears that many questions and doubts raised over the bill have not been adequately addressed.

One of the questions repeated in the Diet has been who will be the primary target of the legislation. Members of the Abe administration have emphasized that “ordinary people” would not be targeted for investigation and prosecution. They had reason to do so — the government’s past aborted “conspiracy crime” bills were unpopular because the broad reference to “groups” as their target incurred criticism that the activities of civic groups and other legitimate organizations could also be targeted by investigators for hard-to-define acts of conspiracy to commit a crime.

In reviving the aborted bill by recasting it an anti-terrorism legislation, the administration took pains to distance it from earlier attempts — now the target was defined as “organized crime group,” and people would not be punished for merely plotting a crime but need to have also made actual (though not clearly defined) preparations for the crime to be penalized. In stressing the need for the legislation as an anti-terrorism effort, Abe went on to say that Japan cannot host the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo without enacting the law — which sounds hollow given that the need for the legislation was never discussed when Japan was bidding for the games.

But the administration’s repeated claim that “ordinary people” would never be the legislation’s target — supposedly intended to dispel the negative public perception associated with past conspiracy crime bills — does not seem to mean much. In the course of the deliberations of the legislation, the Justice Ministry said that a group of people engaged in legitimate activities can be a target of investigation and prosecution once the purpose of their activities have changed to criminal ones — and that members of such a group could no longer be deemed “ordinary” people. Masahito Moriyama, state minister for justice, did not rule out ordinary people being the subject of investigation under the legislation if they are under criminal suspicion. In the end, there will be no clear distinction on who will be targeted and who will not.

With or without the 2020 Tokyo Games, efforts to crack down on terrorism would be necessary. But the question remains why that objective cannot be achieved by tightening individual laws concerning activities directly linked to terrorist activities, instead of a legislation that covers a total of 277 types of crimes.

The Patriot Act introduced in the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks expanded the powers of investigators for intercepting telephone and email communications for the purpose of containing terrorism. It was later exposed that the surveillance by the investigation authorities had been widened to cover a broad spectrum of people’s everyday lives, including the history of their internet searches.

The very nature of the efforts to crack down on crimes before they are committed will require investigators to keep watch over the activities of organizations and individuals under suspicions. If the U.S. example is going to be any clue, it would be reasonable to be concerned whether the dragnet of such surveillance by investigators could be widened to include the activities of civic groups such as, for example, those campaigning against policies of the government in power. There are worries that the prospect of surveillance or possible investigations could have the effect of discouraging the legitimate activities of such groups. According to a Kyodo News poll late last month, 41 percent of the respondents supported the legislation against 39 percent who opposed, but slightly more than half those polled expressed concern that the legislation could have the effect of deterring civic movements and political activities.

Abe says any concern that the legislation would allow investigation authorities to put people’s everyday activities under surveillance is “entirely unwarranted.” But it seems that the government’s explanations in the Diet deliberations have not been convincing enough to dispel such concerns.