Former labor minister Masakuni Murakami was sentenced Tuesday to 26 months in prison for taking 72.8 million yen in bribes from KSD, an industrial mutual-aid organization, between 1996 and 1998.

The Tokyo District Court found Murakami, 70, a one-time leading member of the Liberal Democratic Party’s Upper House caucus, guilty of taking the money as a reward for helping KSD in its project to build a university in Saitama Prefecture. He was also fined 72.8 million yen.

Prosecutors had demanded 3 1/2 years in prison and a 72.8 million yen fine.

Murakami, who immediately appealed to a higher court, was released on bail of 100 million yen later in the day.

Presiding Judge Yujiro Nakatani ruled that Murakami’s acts constitute bribery as he was asked by KSD founder Tadao Koseki for specific favors and later received a monetary reward for them.

“(Murakami’s) crimes will, if nothing, exacerbate public distrust in party politics and national politics in general, including administrative authorities,” the judge said.

Murakami, who has denied throughout his trial that he took bribes, bowed slightly to the judges and gallery after the sentence was passed.

In the same trial, Shigehiro Nakano, a 56-year-old former chief secretary of Murakami’s, was sentenced to a suspended 18-month prison term for conspiring with his boss to receive the kickbacks. Nakano also appealed his sentence, which was suspended for three years.

According to the court, Murakami posed questions in the Diet in January 1996 in ways that benefited KSD’s plan to build the Institute of Technologies, a special college for industrial engineers. Koseki had requested earlier that Murakami respond cooperatively.

In return, Murakami accepted 50 million yen in cash from Koseki at his office in the Upper House members’ office building in October 1996, the court said.

Murakami also had KSD pay the rent for his office to the tune of 22.8 million yen between June 1996 and July 1998, the court said.

The ruling was largely based on testimony by Koseki, who was convicted in March last year for bribing Murakami and former Upper House member Tadao Koyama. Koseki testified that he extended 72 million yen to Murakami after asking him to promote the establishment of the institute.

In claiming his innocence, however, Murakami, who resigned from the Diet in February 2001, denied being asked for any favors by Koseki and receiving 50 million yen. He also claimed that he was not aware that KSD had paid his rent.

The ruling marked the final Tokyo District judgment on a series of scandals involving KSD, with charges ranging from bribery to misappropriation of funds.

Koseki and three others from KSD, which offers accident compensation and other mutual aid to small and midsize companies, have been convicted.

Koyama, Murakami’s former secretary, was sentenced by the same court in September to 22 months in prison and fined 31.6 million yen for taking bribes from KSD. He has since appealed.

KSD, a government-authorized organization, renamed itself Anshin Zaidan at the beginning of this month. The Institute of Technologies, which was built with about 5 billion yen in government subsidies, opened in 2001.

Following the ruling against Murakami, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said in a statement that the government “takes the ruling seriously,” admitting that the public is highly critical of a series of money scandals involving politicians.

“Each politician must straighten up and work hard not to lose the people’s trust,” the top government spokesman said.

LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki issued a written statement saying that it is “regrettable” that the prison sentence was not suspended, and the party will “keep watching the development of the trial.”

But the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, called the KSD bribe case a “symbol of the money politics of the LDP.”

“The KSD incident showed that the linchpin of the LDP’s Upper House members and the head of an intraparty faction was tainted with bribes,” Koichiro Genba of DPJ said.