National / Crime & Legal

Ministry panel backpedals on promise to revamp justice system

Recording of interrogations to be minimal under proposals, while wiretapping will be expanded

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Despite growing criticism of the notoriously opaque criminal justice system, a Justice Ministry panel tasked with revamping it concluded three years of work Wednesday by deciding not to back mandatory recording of all criminal interrogations, while recommending that law enforcement be given a freer hand in pursuing controversial information-gathering tactics.

The panel’s conclusions appear to be at odds with its original vow to bring Japan’s criminal justice system “up to date” and roll back reliance on confessions as a means of securing prosecutions.

It proposed requiring recordings in only about 3 percent of all interrogations, such as those related to serious cases that will be deliberated by lay judges, such as murder and arson.

If enacted into law, the recommendations would nevertheless mark the first time in Japan that recordings of criminal interrogations have been made mandatory. Under the current system, recording interrogations is not obligatory and is conducted on a purely voluntary basis.

To stave off criticism of what appears to be watered-down recommendations, the panel adopted a supplementary resolution expressing its “strong hope” that authorities will choose to “record as wide a range of (interrogations) as possible,” outside those strictly mandated by the ministry.

It also said that the proposed system of mandated recordings should be reviewed after “a certain period of time” for possible tweaks. The supplementary resolution, however, is not legally binding.

The panel, called the Legislative Council, was set up in 2010 following a high-profile scandal in which welfare ministry official Atsuko Muraki was wrongfully arrested and indicted for fraud based on altered evidence. After Muraki was exonerated of all charges, she was appointed to the panel.

During Wednesday’s session, Muraki slammed the narrower-than-expected scope of mandatory recordings as “regrettable,” but nonetheless described the move as a “huge stride toward” overhauling the justice system.

“Although I have to say the reform is still far from over, I sincerely hope these changes will be implemented as soon as possible,” Muraki said, adding the fact remains that “interrogations of suspects must be done in a way that makes their confessions absolutely voluntary and trustworthy.”

The panel also decided to recommend a plea bargain system that would help authorities combat organized crime by providing legal incentives, including reduced sentences and even immunity from prosecution, for suspects who cooperate in identifying ringleaders of criminal operations such as bribery, tax evasion and drug trafficking.

The incentives would be conditional on the suspect providing accurate information, with a sentence of up to five years for those found to have given false testimony.

Although likely to help authorities better navigate the increasingly complex world of white-collar crimes, as well as more traditional yakuza-style operations, some fear such a system would encourage suspects to falsely implicate others to secure lighter sentences for themselves.

A further major change was proposed to the contentious wiretapping law, which the panel decided to expand, allowing eavesdropping not only for investigations involving drug trafficking and arms dealing, but also murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, fraud and child pornography.

The Justice Ministry is expected to submit related bills to the Diet early next year based on the panel’s proposals.

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