Public prosecutors on Wednesday arrested lawmaker Muneo Suzuki on suspicion of bribery after his colleagues in the House of Representatives gave them the green light in a plenary session earlier in the day.

The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office alleges Suzuki accepted a 5 million yen bribe from Yamarin, a logging company in Obihiro, Hokkaido, in August 1998, in exchange for attempts to secure favorable treatment from the Forestry Agency.

The prosecutors served Suzuki an arrest warrant issued by the Tokyo District Court following the authorization, which is required before legislators can be arrested while the Diet is in session.

The prosecutors had asked the court for the warrant on Monday.

The legal procedure required to arrest a lawmaker is designed to protect legislators’ parliamentary activities from the arbitrary use of power by an administration.

It is the first time since January 1997 for the Diet to grant permission for the arrest of a lawmaker. House of Councilors member Tatsuo Tomobe, arrested on suspicion of fraud, was the last lawmaker arrested under such circumstances. He later lost his seat after the Supreme Court upheld his conviction by a Lower Court.

Suzuki’s is the 15th case since the end of World War II in which a lawmaker was arrested following parliamentary permission in Japan.

When granting the Diet approval, the LDP-led coalition noted that there is no sign that prosecutors abused their right to arrest a lawmaker. They added that it is natural to place restrictions on Suzuki’s right to attend Diet deliberations.

The opposition reasoned that Suzuki’s arrest is in the public’s interest, saying the move will help clear up numerous allegations concerning Suzuki.

Commenting on Suzuki’s arrest, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters at his office, “It is truly regrettable that an incumbent lawmaker has been arrested. I think all lawmakers now must ponder what kind of behavior can earn the trust of the public.”

Asked if he thinks Suzuki should quit as a Diet member, the prime minister said: “He himself should decide on the course of his action. And he must decide that.”

Said LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki: “I gravely accept the matter; the party will do its utmost to establish political ethics.”

Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the Democratic Party of Japan, noted that his party plans to demand that LDP members who accepted political funds from Suzuki testify before the legislature.

“Suzuki’s arrest will not put an end to the incident,” Hatoyama told a regular news conference. “Those who received money from Suzuki are equally guilty.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said the government is seeking ways to impose tighter restrictions on political donations.

“Mr. Suzuki’s case is not the only one resulting from the issue involving politicians and money. (The ruling Liberal Democratic Party) is now discussing how to make rules better and more severe for the way political donations should be handled,” Fukuda said.

Fukuda, however, added that making new rules alone will not likely solve the whole problem.

“No matter how severe the new rules will be, problems will continue to arise as long as there are people who don’t follow them,” said the top government spokesman, suggesting that what counts most is each politician’s sense of morality.

Meanwhile, the Lower House Steering Committee decided to put to vote an opposition-sponsored motion demanding Suzuki’s resignation in the chamber’s plenary session as early as this week. Although it is the third time that the opposition has demanded such a vote, it is the first time it has reached the plenary session. The motion had been voted down by the ruling bloc on two previous occasions at the steering committee.

The chamber is expected to clear the motion as the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, New Komeito and the New Conservative Party is planning to support it. Suzuki plans to remain as a lawmaker.

Suzuki, who sits as an independent in the lower house after quitting the LDP in March, rebutted the allegations during a closed-door session of the Diet committee Tuesday.

He said he received 4 million yen as a political donation — not a 5 million yen bribe — from Yamarin as a congratulatory gift for his assumption of the post of deputy chief Cabinet secretary, according to lawmakers from the panel session.

Suzuki appeared on television programs Tuesday evening and repeated his explanations. He accused the prosecutors of trying to make a criminal out of him.

According to investigative sources, Suzuki received the money in exchange for his influence to secure better treatment for Yamarin following an administrative punishment imposed on it for illegal logging in national forests.

The Forestry Agency punished Yamarin for cutting down trees in a national forest by barring it from bidding to buy trees on national land for seven months from June 1998.

Yamarin executives allegedly asked Suzuki to ask Forestry Agency officials to sell trees on national land to the company after the end of the ban, according to prosecution sources.

Yamarin apparently wanted the agency to agree to sell it an amount of trees equivalent to what it was unable to purchase under the ban, and to do so on a voluntary basis outside the bidding process.

The sources said Suzuki urged Yamarin’s chairman to take the money to one of his offices near the parliament building, and the secretary accepted it.

Suzuki then phoned a senior Forestry Agency official to ask for better treatment for Yamarin, but the official refused.

Suzuki quit the LDP over a series of scandals, including allegations of meddling in Japan’s diplomatic affairs.

On April 30, prosecutors arrested his aide Akira Miyano in connection with alleged bid-rigging in a government-funded project to build an accommodation and evacuation facility on Kunashiri Island, one of the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido claimed by Japan.

In a series of scandals involving the Foreign Ministry, Russian affairs expert Masaru Sato and colleague Akira Maejima were indicted earlier this month on charges of using about 33 million yen to pay for a trip to Israel in April 2000. The funds had been earmarked for an international aid panel for Russia. Sato is said to have close ties to Suzuki.

Sato on hunger strike

Masaru Sato, a former expert on Russia at the Foreign Ministry, said Wednesday he will go on a 48-hour hunger strike to protest lawmaker Muneo Suzuki’s arrest earlier in the day.

A close aide to Suzuki, Sato has been indicted on charges of using more than 33 million yen in funds earmarked for an international aid panel for Russia to pay for a trip to Israel. Sato released the statement through his lawyers.

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