A controversial bill aimed at making conspiracy a crime will likely take its first step toward law as the ruling coalition is ready to ask a House of Representatives panel to approve the legislation over strong objections from the opposition parties.

The government-sponsored bill would allow authorities to crack down on members of organizations who agree to commit a crime, even if they don’t actually perpetrate one.

Lawyers and citizen groups are protesting the legislation because they fear it will end up giving the government excessive control over the public.

Here are some basic questions and answers about the conspiracy bill:

What will change if the conspiracy bill is passed?

Under current law, one can be punished only after actually committing a crime or preparing to commit what qualifies as a grave offense.

According to the bill, agreeing to commit a crime would be recognized as a criminal act, even if the agreeing party gets cold feet.

The new legislation would also apply to all crimes punishable by imprisonment of four years or longer, up to capital punishment. Convicted conspirators would face a prison term of up to five years.

What are the key points of contention with the bill?

The Justice Ministry claims the legislation is designed to target only organized crime by groups, including yakuza and fraud rings, and would apply only to “specific and realistic (conspiratorial) agreements” made by their members, instead of ordinary individuals.

But the Japan Federation of Bar Associations and many citizen groups have asserted that authorities will likely abuse their power by stretching the bill’s interpretation to include lesser crimes committed by the general public. This is because the definition of conspiracy and the targeted groups as written in the bill has been left vague.

The legislation would apply to more than 615 offenses, including murder and theft, but critics say many on the list have little to do with organized crime, including violations of the election and political funds control laws.

How the state recognizes a conspiracy “agreement” is another issue. In October, then Justice Minister Chieko Noono told the Lower House that “even winking” could be a signal of criminal conspiracy. This fueled public fears of state abuse of authority.

What are the parties’ current positions on the bill?

The ruling bloc has proposed revising it to limit its scope to organizations that commit crimes as a “common purpose.”

The proposed revisions would also make conspiracy punishable only when members of a group, besides agreeing to commit a crime, carry out “an act conducive” to the crime, such as casing the scene of the planned offense.

But the Democratic Party of Japan, the largest opposition force, says the phrases “common purposes” and “conducive acts” are not clearly defined. Opposition leaders appear to be ready to put up a fight if the ruling bloc tries to ram the bill through the Lower House.

Why is the government pushing to enact the bill now?

In 2000, Japan signed the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, which set guidelines for cooperation on fighting international organized crime.

The treaty obliges member countries to have domestic legislation that establishes conspiracy as a crime.

As of April, 119 countries, including Canada, France, Russia, Britain and U.S., have met the terms of the U.N. Convention.

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