Political observers say one of the reasons Ichiro Ozawa lost the Democratic Party of Japan’s presidential election Sept. 14 was the negative image of his alleged involvement in false financial reporting by his political fund-management body, Rikuzankai.

Prosecutors dropped the case due to lack of evidence, but the Tokyo No. 5 Inquest Committee is currently reviewing the matter for the second time and is expected to reach a conclusion by the end of October. Should the panel’s members find that the case merits indictment, Ozawa will automatically be brought to court.

Committees for the Inquest of Prosecution are independent judicial bodies that review whether cases dropped by prosecutors should in fact have resulted in an indictment.

The goal is to ensure that the public’s will is reflected in checking the accuracy of the decisions made by prosecutors — the only officials authorized to press charges.

The committees are comprised of 11 citizens randomly chosen from voting rolls in the community. Today, 165 such committees exist across the country.

In the past year, the power of the committees has grown because of a law revision to make their decisions legally binding. Previously, their rulings were only recommendations to prosecutors.

Here are some basic questions regarding the inquest committees.

How do the inquest committees operate?

If crime victims, their families or those who witnessed crimes want to challenge prosecutorial decisions to drop cases, they can bring them to their local committee for review free of charge.

The committee starts by looking through interrogation records and other evidence submitted by prosecutors. The committee members also interview prosecutors who worked on the case. Members have the authority to contact city offices and related personnel to ask about suspects. They can question those who brought the case for review, interview experts and even perform investigations at crime scenes.

In some cases, inquest committee members can start their own investigation if the majority of committee members vote in support of such a probe.

Last year, 2,613 cases were brought to the committees, while 50 others were reviewed under their own investigations.

What kind of decisions do the committees make?

After reviewing and deliberating cases thoroughly, the committees vote.

The possible decisions are: “exemption from prosecution appropriate,” “exemption from prosecution unreasonable” or “indictment appropriate.”

The decisions are based on a majority vote. However, in the case of authorizing an “indictment appropriate” decision, eight of the 11 committee members must be in support.

According to the Supreme Court, among the 150,000-plus cases brought before committees from 1948 through December 2009, only 1.5 percent were voted as “indictment appropriate,” 9.7 percent were voted as “exemption from prosecution unreasonable” and 56.1 percent were voted as “exemption from prosecution appropriate.”

The remaining 32.7 percent were either withdrawn or the cases were sent to another committee with the authority to work on such cases.

Statistics show that a good portion of cases brought to the committees are related to traffic accidents or fraud.

How strong is the impact of the committees’ decisions?

Prior to May 21, 2009, decisions made by inquest committees were recommendations and carried no binding power. But the revision to the Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution Law and Criminal Procedure Law now requires prosecutors to take up cases in which committees come to “indictment appropriate” and “exemption from prosecution unreasonable” decisions.

Under the current rules, if a case that the committee voted as “indictment appropriate” is dropped by prosecutors, inquest committees can review the case again with the help of a lawyer. During this second round, if at least eight members vote in favor of indictment, the suspect is automatically indicted. In this scenario, a district court appoints an outside lawyer who serves as prosecutor and presses charges.

Are there qualifications to serve as committee members? Can people be exempt from service?

Those who have not finished their compulsory education or have been sentenced to a year in prison or more can’t serve. People related to the suspects or victims in a case, or know them personally, are also excluded.

People in certain occupations are disqualified. For example, state ministers, legal professionals, law enforcement officials, senior government officials, Self-Defense Forces members, governors and mayors are not allowed to serve. The law also stipulates that the Emperor, Empress, Empress Dowager and the Crown Prince may not serve.

People aged 70 or older, students and those who served as inquest committee members or as lay judges in the last five years are exempt.

Diet members and local assembly members can serve but are exempt while in session.

How does the selection process work?

Every year by Oct. 15, a total of 400 prospective inquest committee members are chosen at random from among registered voters for each of the 165 committees.

Every three months, in February, May, August and November, another lottery takes place to select five or six people to serve as committee members. Because committee members serve six-month terms, half of the members change every three months.

How often do the committees meet?

On average, the meetings are held once or twice a month, according to the Supreme Court. Every three months, when new members arrive, the committees choose a chairman or woman. The chair is responsible for calling the meeting and leading discussions.

The members serve under oath. The meetings are held behind closed doors, and members are obliged to keep details confidential during and after their service. Those who reveal information can face as much as six months in prison or a fine of up to ¥500,000.

How did the inquest committees begin?

According to “Kensatsu Shinsakai Gojuunenshi” (“Fifty Years of History of the Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution”), published by the Supreme Court in 1998, the system began because of pressure by the General Headquarters of the Allied Occupation, which demanded a system to democratize the Japanese prosecutorial system.

In the book, Tosuke Sato, a former prosecutor general who helped design the system as a Justice Ministry official, said the Occupation authorities had suggested that prosecutors either be elected or that officials introduce a grand jury system similar to the one in the United States.

Ministry officials, arguing that neither was suitable for Japanese society, in the end created the inquest committee — a system unique to Japan, Sato said.

Since the committee was launched in 1948, more than 500,000 people have served as committee members or alternates. Many who served said in the book that they felt privileged to have been able to work with others and make important decisions as citizens.

Some former committee members voluntarily promote the system, believing that emboldening the voice of citizens is an important part of democracy.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk

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