‘Conspiracy crime’ bill railroaded through the Diet

The way the bill amending the law against organized crime — which will penalize conspiring and preparing to commit nearly 300 types of crimes even before they are committed — was railroaded through the Diet is deplorable. Instead of seeking to address lingering doubts and questions about the contentious legislation, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling coalition cut short the Upper House deliberations, bypassed a committee vote and rammed the bill through the chamber Thursday morning at the end of an overnight marathon plenary session. It is yet another example of what an administration with a dominant hold on power can do.

Given its majority control of the Diet, it would have been easy for the ruling alliance to get the legislation enacted anyway. The way the committee deliberations were unilaterally terminated and the bill was put to vote in an unusual procedure appears to symbolize the Abe administration’s disregard of widespread concern over the legislation.

It would indeed be a pity if the coalition hastened the process toward the closing of the 150-day regular Diet session to quash more chances for the opposition to grill the administration over suspicions that the “prime minister’s intention” may have played a role in the government’s deregulation to allow a school operator run by Abe’s longtime friend to open a new veterinary medicine department at its university.

The legislation marks a major change to the nation’s criminal law system, which in principle is supposed to punish people for crimes they have committed. The Abe administration stressed the need for the amendment as a measure to crack down on terrorist acts before they are committed — especially as the nation prepares to host the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo — and for Japan to join a 2000 United Nations treaty against cross-border organized crime. But the nation already has legal provisions that penalize preparing for a range of serious crimes, such as murder, without actually committing them. The question of why the government’s expressed purpose for the legislation cannot be served by tightening specific provisions on terrorism-linked crimes — instead of a blanket bill covering 277 types of crimes, including ones that do not seem directly relevant for anti-terrorism efforts — was never convincingly answered.

The amendment penalizes the act of two or more people conspiring to commit a crime and at least one of them engaging in actual preparations for the crime, such as raising funds for the act and previewing the planned crime site, in which case all the people who were in on the plot would be punished. In an apparent move to dispel popular unease over the bill, the administration expended a lot of energy emphasizing that the legislation targets only “organized crime groups” — and that “ordinary people” would not be a target of investigation and prosecution.

But the Diet deliberations exposed how the distinction can be blurry. Officials said a group of people engaged in legitimate activities can be targeted once their purpose has turned criminal, and that people under criminal suspicion would no longer be considered as “ordinary people” — a judgment that would rest with investigators. They also acknowledged the possibility that people who do not belong to an organized crime group but are on the periphery of such a group could be punished. The opposition camp charged that the broad definition of the legislation’s target could allow for discretionary implementation by investigation authorities. What would constitute the act of “preparing” for a crime is also broadly defined. The ambiguity over who can be punished for what kind of act raises concerns that the legislation could be used to target — and thereby deter — legitimate activities of groups campaigning against government policies.

Efforts to crack down on crimes before they are committed would naturally require investigators to place under surveillance suspected people or groups. Concern has been raised that the legislation could lead to broad surveillance of society in ways that intrude on people’s privacy, including greater use of investigation tools such as wiretapping. Abe simply dismissed such concerns as “entirely unwarranted.”

Despite all these questions and concerns, the legislation was fast-tracked through the Diet — Lower House committee deliberations amounted to just 30 hours while the Upper House panel spent a mere 18 hours on it before the deliberations were unilaterally cut off by the ruling coalition. The coalition’s dominant majority in both chambers of the Diet makes such an action possible, but it hardly seems like the right way to gain the public’s support for the contentious legislation.