The House of Representatives passed a controversial bill Friday to allow crime victims to directly question defendants in court, prompting legal experts to express deep concern that the measure could undermine the criminal justice system and foster feelings of revenge.
The bill to revise the criminal procedure law was approved by a majority vote of not only the ruling bloc — the Liberal Democratic Party and New Komeito — but also the Democratic Party of Japan in the Lower House judicial affairs committee Friday, and cleared the chamber later in the afternoon.
The legislation will be handed over to the Upper House for deliberation and is expected to be enacted during the current Diet session. If the bill is passed, it will enable people victimized by crime, including kin of victims, to sit with prosecutors and question defendants or witnesses in court. They will also be allowed to offer opinions on the penalty to be meted out.
Participation will be limited to victims of heinous crimes, including murder, negligent homicide, rape and abduction. “Many crime victims are seeking (the opportunity) to participate in court proceedings,” New Komeito lawmaker Yoshinori Oguchi said during the judicial affairs committee meeting Friday.
“And I believe that (this bill) will help (crime victims) regain their honor and contribute to their recovery from the crime.”
Earlier this week, Isao Okamura, head of the National Association of Crime Victims and Surviving Families, spoke at the same committee, stressing the importance of the system.
Okamura’s wife was murdered in 1997 by a man who bore a grudge against him even though Okamura had never met or spoken to him.
The murderer “lied repeatedly in court . . . and openly and calmly defamed my wife,” Okamura said, his voice cracking with emotion. “Sitting in the (courtroom) gallery, I wasn’t allowed to say anything on behalf of my wife.”
Also present at the committee meeting Tuesday was bill opponent Tadaari Katayama, who lost his 3-year-old son in a traffic accident in 1997.
“What many victims truly want to know is ultimately why their family member had to be a victim,” Katayama said. “The answer to that is not going (to be found) in the evidence to prove the offender guilty . . . and I am doubtful that (the victims) will get the answers even if they question (defendants) in court.”
Katayama said he thought the focus should be on reforming and educating offenders so they come to understand the feelings of the victims and their families.
“I believe that’s when (the victim) may get the answer,” Katayama said. Various lawmakers, lawyers and academics have criticized the bill, which they argue could be used as a means for revenge.
During Friday’s Lower House committee meeting, Nobuto Hosaka of the Social Democratic Party expressed concern that victims would demand harsher punishment than prosecutors.
“The criminal court will be controlled by feelings of retaliation,” Hosaka said. “It will create difficulties in the defendants’ defense process and the court scene will undergo a complete change.”
In May, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations issued a statement to protest the bill, stating it could “completely overturn the criminal justice system.” The statement urged the government to first introduce a system whereby victims could ask questions and state opinions to the prosecutors and receive publicly funded legal support.
The DPJ submitted its own version of the bill, which promoted the “indirect” participation of crime victims. In that arrangement, victims and family members would pass opinions, questions and propose sentences to prosecutors without actually sitting in on court proceedings.
But the bill was outvoted in the Lower House committee meeting Friday, and the DPJ said it will now support the ruling coalition’s draft.
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