The Tokyo District Court handed a former Foreign Ministry official a suspended prison term Thursday for misusing funds and rigging bids for government aid projects for Russia.

The court sentenced Akira Maejima, 38, formerly in charge of aid projects for Russia, to 1 1/2 years in prison, suspended for three years.

The case is closely linked to House of Representatives member Muneo Suzuki, who allegedly wielded strong, and undue, influence on Japan’s diplomatic activities concerning Russia and is being tried separately on bribery and perjury charges.

Maejima was convicted of conspiring with Masaru Sato, 43, a Foreign Ministry official, to misappropriate some 33 million yen in state funds earmarked chiefly for Russia, as well as with Sato and two Mitsui & Co. officials to rig bids over an energy aid project on Kunashiri Island — one of the disputed islands northeast of Hokkaido held by Russia.

Presiding Judge Nobuyuki Kiguchi said, “The crimes were cunning and malicious and caused losses to the Cooperation Committee, for which public money is used.”

Although Maejima pleaded guilty, Sato, a former Russian affairs expert at the Foreign Ministry who allegedly had close ties with Suzuki, pleaded not guilty when their trial opened in September. Sato is now standing trial separately.

The court ruled that both Maejima and Sato had violated their duty by asking the Cooperation Committee, which provided aid for Russia and other former Soviet states, to fund a trip to Israel in April 2000 to take part in an international academic conference.

The Tokyo-based, state-funded Cooperation Committee, set up in 1993, had been effectively defunct in recent years. The ministry abolished it after the scandal broke.

The judge agreed with the defense’s argument that Maejima’s superiors were responsible for the trip to Israel, saying, “The superiors involved in the final decision were permitting the crimes out of various considerations.”

Maejima was handed a suspended term because he has been fired and feels regret, Kiguchi said. Maejima tearfully apologized for the scandal during the trial.

Maejima and Sato were also found to have conspired with two employees of Mitsui, a major trading house, to rig the committee’s bidding process for a Tokyo-funded power development project on Kunashiri Island.

They interfered with the process by leaking the estimated price for the project to the Mitsui officials between February and March of 2000 just before the bidding took place. Mitsui eventually won the contract for a diesel-powered electricity plant.

The court on Feb. 25 gave the two Mitsui officials — Masahide Iino and Yusuke Shimazaki — suspended one-year prison terms for the misconduct.

Maejima has said he was forced by Sato — under Suzuki’s direction — to commit the crimes. The bureau chief at the time endorsed the trip to Israel and tacitly gave his consent to the Kunashiri power project, according to Maejima.

Suzuki, 55, is said to have exerted strong influence on many Foreign Ministry decisions and has often been referred to as a “shadow foreign minister.”

Suzuki left the ruling Liberal Democratic Party last March following reports of his alleged meddling in Foreign Ministry affairs, but he has denied any wrongdoing and refused to give up his Diet seat.

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