The government has reportedly given up a plan to have the Diet enact within the current session a bill to enable Japan to join a multilateral treaty to combat international organized crime, but it intends to introduce it again in the next Diet session. The bill carries a danger of undermining a national legal principle that no criminal liability is established unless a crime is actually committed. It also could impair freedom of thought, speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution. It must be substantially rewritten before it is resubmitted.

The bill would introduce the “crime of conspiracy,” which could be applied to anyone who joins others in planning a crime even if the crime is not actually carried out. At present, arrests can be made at the conspiratorial stage for eight exceptionally grave crimes, including treason.

The government says the introduction of the “crime of conspiracy” is a step toward Japan’s joining the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, which was adopted in 2000 mainly to combat crimes by international criminal organizations, such as the smuggling of drugs and firearms, and human trafficking. Japan signed the convention in December 2000 but has yet to ratify it.

Specifically, if people join a conspiracy (defined as “an activity of an organization”) to carry out a crime that is punishable by at least four years of imprisonment under existing law, they could be charged with the crime of conspiracy and punished even if the planned crime is not carried out.

The government has made it clear to the Diet that the crime of conspiracy would be applicable to more than 600 crimes, including violations of the Road Traffic Law, the Public Offices Election Law and the Employment Security Law. Those charged with the crime of conspiracy could be sentenced to up to five years in prison.

While the U.N. convention targets crimes that are transnational in nature and involve a criminal organization, the bill does not limit the application of the crime of conspiracy to those involved in transnational crimes. Although a legislator has called for a revision to limit the application of the new crime to actions by criminal organizations, the Justice Ministry has not responded positively.

Lawyers and civic activists fear the possibility that civic groups engaged in ordinary activities could become targets because the bill’s definition of the crime of conspiracy and its definition of “an organization” are unclear. For example, if labor union members decided to conduct long, continuous collective bargaining with company officials until their demands were met, theoretically they could face a charge of conspiring, as an organization, to confine people. Or, if a neighborhood association decided to hold a sit-in against a plan to construct a condominium in the neighborhood, theoretically a conspiracy charge could be leveled against it for conducting an organized obstruction of business.

The Justice Ministry says that only when people make a concrete and realistic plan to carry out a crime will a “crime of conspiracy” be established, adding that the “crime of conspiracy” would not be applied to ordinary activities by citizens, including those of civic-movement organizations, labor unions and businesses. But this assurance cannot be taken at face value because experience shows that, once a bill becomes a law, it generates its own momentum and law enforcement authorities can stretch their own interpretation of it to suit their purpose. As written now, the bill clearly could infringe on people’s rights of thought, speech and expression.

To prevent the law from being used as a tool for thought control, the bill must make it clear that a crime of conspiracy would be established only when suspects have made outwardly discernible preparations for a crime. Mere verbal planning must not constitute a crime. It also must be made clear that the law only covers transnational crimes by criminal organizations — the target of the U.N. convention.

One provision of the bill would allow people who voluntarily surrender to police after joining a conspiracy to avoid charges or to receive a lighter punishment. It is feared, though, that this could lead to widespread use of informers by police. Another provision concerning cyber-crime prevention would enable investigators, armed only with a warrant to seize a personal computer, to obtain data from all servers linked with the computer, or to ask, without any warrant, network providers to not erase communication logs for up to 90 days.

Given that the bill in its present form could seriously compromise the nation’s legal principles and foundations, thorough debates on its contents must be conducted before it is resubmitted to the Diet.

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