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A former Foreign Ministry expert on Russian affairs pleaded not guilty Tuesday to misusing more than 33 million yen from a ministerial fund to pay for a trip abroad by officials and denied interfering in bidding for a construction project on one of the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.

At his first trial session before the Tokyo District Court, Masaru Sato, 42, denied misappropriating the money for a trip to Israel by ministry officials and inviting an Israeli scholar to Japan.

Sato, who had strong ties with arrested lawmaker Muneo Suzuki, also denied unlawfully helping trading firm Mitsui & Co. win the project on Kunashiri Island in 2000.

But Akira Maejima, 37, a former assistant director of the Foreign Ministry’s Oceanian Division and Sato’s former subordinate, appearing at the same court session, admitted to the charges and said he conspired with Sato in both cases.

Two executives of Mitsui also admitted they unlawfully interfered with bidding for the project — construction of a diesel power plant — by obtaining information from the two Foreign Ministry officials.

Sato claimed the 33 million yen from the Foreign Ministry fund was intended to foster efforts to gather information on Russian affairs.

“The two charges are related to a national policy at the time, under the initiative of the Prime Minister’s Office, to make every effort to conclude a peace treaty with Russia by 2000,” he said. “Speaking from my conscience, I never did anything (illegal).”

Sato claimed he never ordered Maejima to do any favors for Mitsui in relation to bidding for the project.

In their opening statement, prosecutors said Sato and Maejima colluded to extract money from the fund so that the Cooperation Committee could pay for 17 diplomats and scholars to attend an international academic conference at Tel Aviv University in April 2000.

The two also concealed the cost of inviting a scholar from the university to Japan under false pretenses, they said.

The pair also allegedly conspired with Mitsui officials Masahide Iino, 44, and Yusuke Shimazaki, 39, to help Mitsui win the bid for the power plant.

Protesting his innocence, Sato argued he is in fact the victim of a politically motivated investigation by the prosecution.

Sato did not specify the prosecutors’ motives behind his arrest. It has been reported that his arrest was part of political moves to cut loose any official with close ties to Suzuki.

Suzuki has been charged with taking 5 million yen in bribes from a Hokkaido lumber company and violating the Law Concerning the Oath and Testimony by Witness. His trial will start before the same court on Nov. 11.

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