• Kyodo

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A law penalizing the planning of a range of crimes took effect on Tuesday, with the government insisting it will help thwart terrorism despite public concerns that enhanced police powers could suppress civil liberties.

Under the law, which the ruling parties rammed through the Diet last month, terrorist groups or other criminal organizations can be punished for planning and preparing to commit 277 crimes. It brings a major change to the criminal justice system, which had basically applied penalties only when crimes had actually been committed.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government framed the law as essential for tackling terrorism in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and necessary to ratify a U.N. treaty on international organized crime. Japan is the only country among the Group of Seven countries that has yet to ratify the convention despite signing it in 2000.

Opponents including legal experts warn that the definition of terrorist groups and other organized criminal groups is vague, potentially casting too wide a net. They also pointed to offenses included in the law that seem unrelated to organized crime, such as forestry product theft.

The government has denied that the law will lead to arbitrary punishment, saying that what constitutes a crime is specified under the law and will also be checked by the courts.

The bill deliberated in the Diet was commonly known as the conspiracy bill, a reference to three similarly worded bills that had sought to introduce a conspiracy charge.

None of those bills made it through the Diet in the face of strong criticism, and the Abe government renamed the latest charge to “preparatory crime of terrorism and others,” and applied a narrower scope.

But the government has continued to face difficulty winning broad public support amid lingering concerns it could lead to increased wiretapping and other surveillance.

Toward the end of Diet deliberations, the bill faced questions even from outside the country, with a U.N. special rapporteur on the right to privacy saying it could lead to undue restrictions on privacy and freedom of expression due to its potentially broad application.

Criticism also mounted as the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito took the unorthodox step of bypassing an Upper House committee vote to push the bill through. The bill passed the Diet on June 15 following a vote in a plenary session of the Upper House.

Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda, whose explanations of the bill frequently caused controversy in the Diet, said in a recent interview that he sought to work hard to win public support.

He also said the law will “not be applied to civic groups and labor unions that are engaging in legitimate activities” and that he sees no need to allow police to use wiretapping when investigating the planning of serious crimes.

According to the law, two or more people who plan serious crimes — as part of activities of terrorist groups or other organized criminal groups — will all be punished if any of them take preparatory acts, such as preliminary inspections of relevant locations.

The 277 crimes include those directly related to terrorism, such as arson, as well as those related to drug use, human trafficking and fraud.

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