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Prosecutors will have discretionary power to tape and film interrogations of suspects of murders and other serious crimes on a trial basis, Justice Minister Seiken Sugiura said Tuesday.

The measure, which Sugiura announced to reporters, is apparently designed to allay international concerns that prosecutors may be violating suspects’ rights and to speed up trial procedures by making it easier for judges to determine if confessions are made voluntarily. Police grillings, however, will not be taped.

Although the interrogations to be recorded will be chosen at the discretion of prosecutors, the move marks a drastic change in policy. Prosecutors had adamantly rejected calls made by defense attorneys and a U.N. panel that they be taped.

Subject to the new step will be serious crimes that would be tried under the so-called lay judge system set to start in 2009, judicial sources said.

“Ahead of introducing the citizen judge system in three years, we have studied the recording of interrogations as a means to fulfill prosecutors’ burden-of-proof duty,” Sugiura said.

Prosecutors will tape and film interrogations when they deem the move necessary, the sources said.

Investigations by special prosecution squads and initial questioning of suspects by police will not be recorded, the sources said.

Trials involving heinous crimes tend to drag on as the validity of confessions before indictment — whether they testified voluntarily — is often questioned by the defense in court.

The prosecutors plan to try the recordings until 2008 and then decide whether to introduce the system permanently, the sources said.

Pundits and lawyers had mixed reactions to the plan.

Novelist Ryuzo Saki, well-versed in criminal court procedures, said the measure is “a good undertaking in principle” as it would help judges learn the conditions under which defendants speak to prosecutors.

Toyo Atsumi, professor at the law division at Kyoto Sangyo University’s graduate school, cautioned that prosecutors might use “only images that are convenient to them as material to prove guilt” if only part of the interrogations were recorded.

Lawyer Toshio Tanaka, a leading member of a Japan Federation of Bar Associations team calling for recordings, called the decision “one step forward.” But he said all interrogations should be recorded, including those by police.

According to a survey by the lawyer association, interrogations are recorded in Britain, Italy, Hong Kong, South Korea and the U.S.

In 1998, the U.N. Human Rights Committee on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights recommended that Japan tape or film conversations between suspects and prosecutors.

Under the “citizen judge” system, three professional judges and three citizens, chosen at random from lists of eligible voters, regardless of their views, faith or abilities, would oversee criminal trials. The system will come into force in 2009.