• Kyodo

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The Yokohama District Court on Monday sentenced Motoo Watanabe, the former police chief of Kanagawa Prefecture, to a suspended 18-month prison term for leading the organized coverup of drug use by one of his inspectors in 1996.

The court also handed down suspended one-year terms to Yoshimasa Hara, 48, a former head of the administrative division; Masateru Tsunoda, 59, a former chief of the inspection division; Yosuke Nagayama, 58, a former inspection officer; and Yoshitaka Miyata, 60, a former chief of the public life security section.

All the terms are suspended for three years. Prosecutors had demanded an 18-month prison sentence for Watanabe, 56, and one-year terms for the four others.

Judge Masaoki Iwatare said: “The defendants forgot the spirit of their official responsibilities and betrayed the trust the public had in the police. Their offense is grave and they deserve to die 10,000 times.” The court described the circumstances and motives surrounding the crime as “malicious.”

It was the first time a serving prefectural police chief has been found guilty of committing a crime.

According to the court, Watanabe and the four others conspired in mid-December 1996 to conceal amphetamine use by then Assistant Inspector Yoshihisa Sakayori, 38, in an attempt to preserve the dignity of the prefectural force.

During their first hearing in late February, the five pleaded guilty to concealing Sakayori’s drug use. The district court concluded the trial with only four public hearings over a period of 16 hours.

Police launched an investigation into the coverup after the media first reported it last September. They learned that Sakayori had told his superiors about his drug problem in 1996, that he continued to be administered urine tests until he tested negative and then was fired ostensibly for having an extramarital affair.

Kanagawa police arrested Sakayori on Nov. 4 and turned over their case against nine former senior officials to prosecutors on Nov. 13. Of the nine, the five defendants were indicted. Charges were dropped against the other four.

Sakayori was sentenced in January to a suspended 18-month prison term for using drugs. He did not appeal.

Watanabe told reporters that he does not plan to file an appeal against Monday’s ruling. “I feel very sorry for what I did,” he said as he elbowed his way to his vehicle. Before the ruling, he told reporters that he has recently spent most of his time at home.

Watanabe stood motionless as the judge handed down the sentence, and he seemed to give a small sigh of relief when the judge said his jail term will be suspended. None of the four other defendants are expected to file appeals.

The coverup was revealed as Kanagawa police were being rocked by a series of scandals. It exposed the cracks in Japan’s police organizations, in which most key decisions are made by a handful of “career-track” elite bureaucrats.

“Sometimes I could not understand what those career bureaucrats (such as Watanabe) were doing,” said a senior Kanagawa police official after the ruling. Following the Kanagawa revelations, police came under fire in other parts of Japan, including Niigata and Saitama prefectures.

About 320 people waited in the morning outside the courthouse for the 30 gallery seats.

National Police Agency chief Setsuo Tanaka said the agency will “work on preventing a recurrence of scandals with a resolve that such an incident will never happen again, and do its best to restore public trust in the police.”

Tokumitsu Murakami, head of the Kanagawa Prefectural Police, said he is determined to do everything possible with all other prefectural police personnel to restore public confidence in the force.

The NPA has launched a panel to review the way police organizations operate. Chief Cabinet Secretary Mikio Aoki said the panel, headed by Seichiro Ujiie, president of Nippon Television Network Corp., will make a proposal in one form or another.

However, a planned bill to revise the Police Law, with recommendations from the panel, will not make it in time for the current Diet session since the Lower House is scheduled to dissolve Friday for a general election in late June.