A group of nonpartisan lawmakers gathered Thursday, the first day of the new lay judge system, to call for a moratorium on the new criminal trial system that every political party voted unanimously to institute five years ago.

Under the new “saibanin” system, six civilians selected at random will join three professional judges in deliberating heinous crime cases, such as murder and rape, and hand down sentences. Among the possible sentences the jurors must choose from if a defendant is found guilty is the death penalty.

The saibanin system “includes the handing down of the death penalty and I have doubts about the constitutionality of a system that forces people against their conscience to hand down a sentence that robs a person of his life,” said Democratic Party of Japan legislator Kazuhiro Haraguchi.

“I would like to actively engage in reviewing this system as a nonpartisan group, without taking sides between the ruling and opposition parties.”

The group, comprising 60 Diet members from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the Democratic Party of Japan, the Social Democratic Party, Kokumin Shinto (People’s New Party) and New Party Daichi, adopted a statement vowing for “a drastic review” of the system during the Diet session.

“We have a duty as the legislative body to actively respond to the fact that the majority of the public has fears and doubts about the lay judge system,” the statement said.

“We must hold thorough discussions and take action including seeking a temporary suspension before the actual saibanin court cases start as early as July.”

One member said a plan last week to submit a bill to the Diet to postpone the start of the lay judge system fell through after DPJ lawmakers failed to reach a consensus.

Without the DPJ members, the group fell short of the 20 lawmakers required to submit a bill to the Diet.

With the moratorium bill sidelined, SDP lawmaker Nobuto Hosaka suggested starting fresh with a new approach: revising the lay judge law to soften the punishments against lay judges who leak details of the verdict.

Current law stipulates a sentence of up to six months or a fine of ¥500,000 for leaks. The revised version would scrap the sentence while keeping the fine at ¥500,000 for current lay judges and ¥300,000 for former lay judges.

The law was approved in May 2004, with the Lower House voting unanimously, while just two independent lawmakers opposed it in the Upper House. Shizuka Kamei, a former LDP lawmaker and National Police Agency bureaucrat, expressed deep regret over the vote five years ago.

“Looking back, I think I, Shizuka Kamei, was stupid and I think that those of you present today think you were stupid, too,” said Kamei, current deputy chief of Kokumin Shinto. “The bill was approved unanimously by all of the political parties in a flash . . . and I think that whether we are truly fulfilling our duties as the public’s representatives is in question.”

‘Pillar of reform’

Kyodo News

Prime Minister Taro Aso marked the launch of the lay judge system by calling it the “pillar of judicial reform” and said it will “add a new page in the history of our judiciary.”

“It is expected that court procedures will become faster and comprehensible through public participation and through the introduction of their viewpoints and sentiments,” he said in a prepared statement.

“I hope people in Japan will understand the significance of the lay judge system,” he said.

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