Ozawa acquittal is upheld in appeal

Ex-DPJ don may be in the clear but Diet clout, new party's fate in doubt

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Staff Writers

Former Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa did not conspire with former aides to falsify financial statements in his political funding management body Rikuzankai in 2004 and 2005, the Tokyo High Court ruled Monday, upholding his not-guilty verdict.

But the legal victory is likely to have little positive impact on the political influence of the “shadow shogun,” who left the DPJ to form his own party in July, with critics suggesting his clout is a thing of the past.

Ozawa, now president of Kokumin no Seikatsu ga Daiichi (People’s Life First), maintained his innocence from the start.

He attended Monday’s high court session where the decision was handed down by the same three judges who last week acquitted Nepal citizen Govinda Prasad Mainali of a 1997 robbery-murder.

The court-appointed lawyers serving as prosecutors in both Ozawa’s lower court and high court litigation said they will look carefully at Monday’s decision and decide whether to appeal within the next two weeks. Ozawa’s lawyers said he will not comment on the ruling until they opt not to pursue a final appeal.

Ozawa’s aides welcomed the ruling, vowing to strengthen their political activities, but neither the ruling DPJ nor the Liberal Democratic Party appeared very concerned.

Pundits agree that Ozawa’s days of wielding strong power ended when he bolted from the DPJ in July with fellow loyalists in opposition of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s efforts to raise the consumption tax.

Because most of his followers are first-term lawmakers lacking a strong electoral base, most members of Ozawa’s party are not expected to survive the next Lower House election.

“Ozawa’s People’s Life First will be on the verge of extinction (after the next general election) and his acquittal is not going to help increase the support rate for his party,” said Kazuhisa Kawakami, a political science professor at Meiji Gakuin University. “The public views Ozawa as someone whose political career is over.”

While upholding the lower court acquittal, Monday’s ruling showed that the high court acknowledged different facts from the same evidence, leaning more in favor of Ozawa.

In late April, the Tokyo District Court ruled there was not enough evidence to prove Ozawa had criminal intent in logging cash transactions to purchase ¥400 million worth of land in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, in Rikuzankai’s financial statement in 2005, although the purchase was made in 2004 and should have been reported for that year.

But on Monday, presiding Judge Shoji Ogawa ruled that Ozawa’s former secretaries, who basically ran Rikuzankai, may not have had criminal intent in the first place, and thus Ozawa may have assumed there actually was nothing wrong about the land transaction being reported in 2005.

The high court said there was room to believe that former Ozawa aide Tomohiro Ishikawa may have thought that although the land purchase was made in 2004, its registration and official acquisition were done in 2005, and logging the transaction in 2005 was not a violation of law.

Ishikawa’s successor as Ozawa’s aide, Mitsutomo Ikeda, could have had a similar understanding, the court ruled.

“This was a great ruling. There were some parts of the lower court’s (determination of the facts) that we didn’t appreciate, but the high court ruling made me feel good,” said Junichiro Hironaka, lead council of Ozawa’s defense team.

Ozawa is the first politician to face mandatory indictment after a prosecution inquest committee in Tokyo voted twice and overrode decisions by serving prosecutors not to indict him due to lack of evidence.

The court-appointed lawyers serving as prosecutors appealed the lower court acquittal, arguing the ruling was based on an erroneous evaluation of the evidence.

But at the one-day appeal session Sept. 26, the high court rejected all new evidence submitted by the prosecution and concluded the trial.

Ozawa has meanwhile been eyeing ties with the emerging “third force” parties in the Diet that are not aligned with the DPJ or LDP, including Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto’s Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party).

The high court ruling is likely to push Ozawa to begin negotiations with those other parties.

“I would like to hold discussions and cooperate with anyone who shares our ideas, principles and goals,” Ozawa told reporters earlier this month.

As of now, People’s Life First has 38 lawmakers in the Lower House and 12 in the Upper House, making it the third-largest party, after the DPJ and the LDP. But both the popular Hashimoto and hawkish former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who have been discussing ways to cooperate, are reluctant to join hands with Ozawa.

Meiji Gakuin’s Kawakami said it is unlikely they would risk their popularity.

“The third force has not taken much notice of Ozawa because his political position after the next general election will be extremely weak . . . and I may sound harsh, but I think he should use this victory to mark the clean end of his career,” Kawakami said.

“Many people have an allergic reaction when it comes to Ozawa, including Hashimoto and Ishihara, and even if Ozawa hangs on, he will just become isolated in the political world.”