National / Politics

Osaka panel urges prosecutors to reopen probe into government's murky Moritomo Gakuen land deal

Kyodo

A judicial panel is urging prosecutors to reinvestigate a case against a former senior Finance Ministry official who was involved in the state land sale that sparked allegations of cronyism against Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Osaka No. 1 Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution said Friday in its March 15 decision that it was “unjust” that prosecutors decided not to indict Nobuhisa Sagawa for charges including alleged document-tampering in connection with the heavily discounted sale of land in 2016 to school operator Moritomo Gakuen, which had ties to Abe’s wife, Akie.

But the independent judicial panel of citizens stopped short of demanding the indictment of Sagawa, who led the ministry bureau that handled the land sale. As a result, Sagawa is unlikely to face mandatory indictment.

Based on the panel’s recommendation, prosecutors are obliged to review the case, although further action on their part is unlikely.

An 8,770-sq.-meter plot of land in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, was sold in June 2016 to the nationalist school operator for ¥134 million ($1.2 million) despite being valued at ¥956 million, with the price discounted ostensibly to cover the cost of removing buried waste.

The suspicious deal came to light in February 2017 and sparked accusations of cronyism in the Abe administration, prompting Abe to say in the Diet that he would resign if evidence showing any involvement in the deal by himself or his wife was found.

The Finance Ministry was later found to have rewritten documents on the land sale from February to April the same year to remove references to Akie Abe and any words describing the sale as having been conducted under “special circumstances.”

Following the prime minister’s Diet remarks, opposition lawmakers argued that bureaucrats discounted the land in consideration of Akie Abe’s role in the project and tampered with the documents. Abe’s wife temporarily served as honorary principal of the elementary school that Moritomo planned to open on the land.

The independent panel noted in its decision that Sagawa was “effectively in command” of the issue and his explanation that he did not instruct his subordinates to falsify the documents “lacked credibility.”

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