Diet passes legislation to revamp Japan’s criminal justice system

by

Staff Writer

The Diet on Tuesday passed an amendment mandating for the first time the recording of police interrogations as well as changes to the existing wiretap law and the adoption of a plea bargain system, in reforms representing a significant turning point in Japan’s criminal justice system.

The measures are an attempt to revamp the nation’s notoriously opaque judicial process. Under the new requirements, police and prosecutors will be obliged for the first time to videotape certain criminal interrogations in a bid to prevent the authorities from eliciting coerced confessions.

Investigators have been recording interrogations at their own discretion.

Subject to the new requirements, however, are only those interrogations in extremely grave cases, such as murder, arson and kidnapping, that will be tried under the lay judge system, as well as cases specially investigated by prosecutors.

Together, they account for a mere 3 percent of all criminal cases, spurring concerns the revisions will likely have little impact in preventing coerced confessions.

With the introduction of the plea bargain system, the authorities will be allowed to offer those accused of drug trafficking and white-collar crimes, such as bribery and tax evasion, special deals to encourage them to divulge information on accomplices, including ringleaders, in exchange for lighter sentences or dropped charges.

Included in the new laws are penalties that can be applied if a suspect provides false leads and a requirement that such negotiations take place in the presence of the suspect’s lawyer.

The wiretap law, previously limited to cases such as those related to drugs and weapons, has expanded to cover crimes including fraud and theft in an attempt to rein in organized crime.

The revisions were submitted based on recommendations made by the Justice Ministry’s Legislative Council in 2014 in response to the wrongful arrest and indictment of welfare ministry official Atsuko Muraki, who stood accused of fraud.

In the 2009 scandal, prosecutors altered evidence against Muraki and extracted forced confessions from the suspects involved, igniting criticism over the lack of transparency in the criminal justice system. Muraki was eventually acquitted.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations released a statement Tuesday hailing the videotape mandate as a step forward. But the group cautioned that plea bargaining may result in suspects giving false information, raising the risks for miscarriages of justice, and the expanded wiretap law could infringe on privacy rights.