• Kyodo, Jiji

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The Tokyo District Court on Tuesday hit lawmaker Tsukasa Akimoto with a four-year prison sentence, without suspension, and fines of about ¥7.6 million, in a bribery case linked to the government's project to build casino resorts in Japan.

Public prosecutors had sought a five-year prison term and ¥7.6 million in fines for Akimoto, 49, who remains a member of the Lower House but has left the ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

The court ruled that Akimoto was guilty of receiving bribes worth ¥7.6 million between September 2017 and February 2018 from a Chinese gambling operator aiming to enter Japan's casino market.

Akimoto was also found guilty of offering money to two former advisers to the Chinese firm, 500.com, in exchange for giving false court testimony favorable to him between June and July last year, when he was released on bail.

It is rare for an incumbent lawmaker to be given a prison sentence without suspension.

"Statements of those who admitted to providing cash were fully credible as they were strongly supported by objective evidence," Presiding Judge Toshihiko Niwa said, dismissing Akimoto's claim of innocence.

The judge also recognized that Akimoto took the initiative in organizing false court testimony, saying his action was an "unprecedented obstruction of justice."

Akimoto had denied receiving bribes and argued he did not ask the former advisers to the Chinese firm to make false statements, as he only wanted them to tell the truth.

The court also sentenced the lawmaker's former state-paid secretary Akihiro Toyoshima, indicted on a graft charge, to two years in prison, suspended for four years. Toyoshima, 42, had pleaded not guilty.

Akimoto's defense team said they appealed the ruling. Akimoto was taken into custody following the ruling, but the lawyers immediately requested bail and the court accepted it. He told Kyodo News Monday he intended to stand in the next Lower House election regardless of the ruling.

Akimoto oversaw the government's initiative to legalize the operation of casinos at so-called integrated resorts, which would include hotels and conference facilities, when he served as senior vice minister in the Cabinet Office for about a year from September 2017.

He left the LDP following his initial arrest in December 2019 on suspicion of taking bribes.

Following Tuesday's ruling, the opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan demanded Akimoto's resignation as a lawmaker.

Even though Akimoto had left the LDP, the ruling party should urge Akimoto to resign, said Jun Azumi, the CDP's policy chief. "The LDP hasn't given any penalty (to Akimoto). The party really lacks discipline," Azumi said.

Four people were found guilty of giving bribes to Akimoto in the casino corruption scandal and another four were also convicted in the witness tampering case in conspiracy with the lawmaker. All of their rulings have been finalized.

The country's casino project, which Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has promoted since he was chief Cabinet secretary under his predecessor Shinzo Abe, has been at a standstill due to the withdrawal of interest by key foreign operators amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In major blow to Suga, opposition-backed Takeharu Yamanaka won the Yokohama mayoral election last month, vowing to withdraw the city's bid to host one of the gambling resorts.

The government plans to pick up to three locations where integrated resorts will be permitted to open under legislation to legalize casino gambling in Japan that cleared the Diet in 2018.

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