Former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai and his wife, Anri, who are at the center of an election scandal, have decided to quit the ruling Liberal Democratic Party led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, party sources said Tuesday.

Katsuyuki Kawai, a Lower House member, and his wife, an Upper House member, are suspected of buying votes in the House of Councilors election in July 2019. Anri won her seat in the poll.

The departures of the couple are another setback for Abe, who is struggling to regain public trust in his administration since it came under fire for its coronavirus response and a gambling scandal involving a top prosecutor during the related state of emergency. Abe has close ties with Katsuyuki Kawai, 57, having trusted him as a foreign policy adviser.

Prosecutors are seeking to build a case against the Kawais over allegations they have violated the Public Offices Election Law, and are planning to question the couple on Thursday — a day after the current Diet session ends — according to sources close to the matter.

Lawmakers have special immunity from arrest while the Diet is in session. Over the course of voluntary questioning by prosecutors, the couple has denied the vote-buying allegations.

Katsuyuki Kawai stepped down as justice minister last October following revelations that his wife’s election campaign, effectively orchestrated by him, had paid staffers more than was allowed by law.

In the Upper House election, Anri Kawai defeated veteran lawmaker Kensei Mizote in the Hiroshima constituency following a split in conservative votes.

Prosecutors have established that Kawai orchestrated the campaign for his 46-year-old wife.

Investigations have found the couple may have handed a total of more than ¥20 million in cash to around 100 people in relation to Anri Kawai’s campaign.

The former minister allegedly offered from ¥50,000 to over ¥100,000 in cash each to supporters of the couple in their constituencies in Hiroshima Prefecture, to prefectural and city assembly members, and to local government chiefs.

Anri Kawai was also found to have handed out cash to local voters and others.

In a related move, the Hiroshima District Court on Tuesday sentenced a secretary of Anri Kawai to 18 months in prison, suspended for five years, for overpaying her election campaigners last summer.

The court found Hiroshi Tatemichi, 54, guilty of paying a total of around ¥2.04 million to 14 members of Kawai’s campaign staff between July 19 and 23 last year, exceeding the daily legal limit of ¥15,000 each.

Anri Kawai will lose her seat when Tatemichi’s jail term is finalized, and if the court recognizes the prosecutors’ request for the application of guilt by association under the Public Offices Election Law.

The prosecutors had sought 18 months in prison for the state-paid secretary over violation of the law.

During his trial, Tatemichi admitted he gave “illegal rewards” to campaigners during the Upper House election. His defense team argued he should be punished with a fine, because he was not involved in determining the amounts paid and had played a supportive role.

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