Stop and rethink conspiracy bill

With the Lower House approval this week of the bill to amend the law against organized crime — which penalizes the acts of plotting and preparing for crimes without actually carrying them out, it is all the more important for political parties, lawmakers and individual citizens to stop and think about concrete concerns raised about the basic points of the legislation and consider whether it is indeed necessary. In this connection, a letter to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by Joseph Cannataci, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy, should serve as a timely and meaningful warning to all parties concerned.

The Abe administration protested the letter, saying Japan needs to pass the legislation to join a 2000 U.N. treaty aimed at fighting cross-border organized crimes and denied the risk that its provisions would be arbitrarily enforced. Still, it should humbly address the concerns expressed by Cannataci — that the bill, “also known as the ‘anti-conspiracy bill’ … due to its broad scope may, if adopted into law, lead to undue restrictions on the right to privacy and freedom of expression.”

Although the government says that the primary purpose of the legislation is to prevent terrorism and organized crimes, its scope is so broad that it could cover crimes that do not seem directly related to terrorism, as Cannataci points out. Among the 277 types of crime covered by the bill are theft of forestry products in reserved forest (the Forest Law); exporting without permission and destruction of important cultural properties (the Cultural Properties Preservation Law) and violations of copyrights (the Copyright Law).

The government argues that the legislation, aimed against organizations such as crime syndicates, in principle will not target “ordinary people.” It also denies the risk of abuse by investigation authorities since the legislation requires both “planning” and “preparatory actions” for a crime to trigger investigations. But as Cannataci points out, “the definition of what an ‘organized criminal group’ is vague and not clearly limited to terrorist organizations.” This ambiguity enables the government to contend that the police can start investigations against groups of people that are not crime organizations, which could include labor unions, citizens’ groups and political parties, if the investigators determine that the purpose of their activities has turned criminal. The decision that the character of these groups has changed is believed to rest with the police, and to make a judgment on the nature of such groups’ activities, investigators will need to keep them under constant surveillance that could infringe on their rights to privacy.

Cannataci’s argument that “there is no sufficient clarification on the specific definition of ‘plan’ and ‘preparatory actions’ (which is) too vague to clarify the scope of the proscribed conducts” is a valid point. Examples cited as “preparatory actions” include procuring funds and materials, and preliminary inspection of prospective crime sites. For example, it will be difficult for the police to determine whether a person is withdrawing money from a bank account for private purposes or for criminal purposes. This provision could further increase the temptation by police to intrude on people’s privacy to find out what they are thinking and doing.

Among the list of crimes targeted in the legislation is organized obstruction of business by force, which could increase the possibility of a broad range of groups of people under police surveillance, since an action aimed at halting the construction of unwanted facilities, including a military base, could constitute a crime.

An example cited by lawyers opposing the legislation is enlightening about the danger it poses to the legitimate activities of ordinary citizens: Two citizens talk about a plan to carry out a sit-in in front of the gate of a U.S. military base construction site. One of them buys a mat for the sit-in, but the sit-in is canceled because a typhoon is coming. Although the two do not commit the crime of organizational obstruction of business by force, they could be arrested on suspicion that they planned and prepared for the act. The inclusion of the crime in the legislation can pave the way for police abuse of it as a legal tool to intimidate citizens’ groups by arresting their members.

Japan already has legal provisions to penalize persons who engaged in preparations for a range of grave crimes such as murder, treason, arson, burglary, kidnapping and forgery of money. If the government indeed is seeking to tighten measures to prevent terrorism and organized crimes, these provisions can be tightened and expanded. The ruling coalition should once again weigh the concern that people’s basic rights can be threatened by the proposed legislation.