OITA – Police on Friday referred to prosecutors a case on four police officers alleged to have secretly installed surveillance cameras on the premises of a building used by opposition supporters in Kyushu.
The officers from the Oita Prefectural Police, including the head of an investigative division for election-related crimes at a police station, could be prosecuted for illegally entering a building. The incident occurred just before official campaigning began for the July 10 House of Councilors’ election.
Police said the cameras were installed on the premises in the hot-spring resort town of Beppu, in Oita Prefecture, to monitor certain civil servants who were banned from being involved in election campaigning. They admitted that the method used for the investigation was “inappropriate.”
“There was an illegal act of trespassing (to install the cameras),” said Haruhiko Eguma, a police inspector, at a news conference. Given that the cameras had recorded an unspecified number of people entering and leaving the building, he said, “It was neither necessary nor reasonable to videotape other peoples’ premises, and privacy was violated.”
The police officers from the Beppu Police Station — two who installed the devices and two of their superiors — are alleged to have trespassed in the building without permission a total of seven times between June 18 to 21 to install two cameras in the grounds.
The building is home to a support group for the Social Democratic Party, a small opposition party, and a regional body linked to the Oita chapter of the Japanese Trade Union Confederation, known as Rengo.
Opposition party supporters used the building as a base for Upper House election campaigning, which officially began on June 22. The cameras were in place until June 24, when union members noticed them and alerted the police.
The cameras were set up at two different locations, one covering the building’s entrance and another monitoring the parking lot, according to union members.
One of the senior officers had proposed installing the cameras, according to the police. The other superior, the criminal investigation division head, was supposed to report the plan to the prefectural police headquarters but failed to do so.
The four admitted to the allegations, saying they acted in a foolhardy manner. The police reprimanded them Friday with pay cuts or other punishments.
Despite the purported benefits of using surveillance cameras to investigate certain crimes, the latest case has drawn criticism not only from legal experts but also from investigative authorities for possibly undermining the freedom of election campaigning.
Noting that there was an election office inside the building and access by all people to the building had been videotaped, Hisashi Sonoda, a professor at Konan Law School, said such an activity “could restrict the freedom of election activities and ultimately democracy.”
A senior police official said videotaping visitors to an election campaign office was unheard of. “The police may say they did it for investigative purposes, but it can’t help but be perceived as surveillance.”
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