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The ruling and opposition parties are waging a battle in the Lower House’s Judicial Affairs Committee over a bill that would introduce the “crime of conspiracy.” The crux of the proposal is that one would be punished for joining others to plan a crime even if the crime was not actually carried out or no concrete preparations were made to commit the crime. This is a big departure from the current principle that arrests can be made only when a crime is actually committed or attempted.

The government says that with enactment of the bill, the nation can ratify the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime. The U.N. adopted the convention in 2000 and Japan signed it in December of that year. The purpose of the convention is to combat crimes by international criminal organizations. Two similar bills submitted to the Diet were both killed because it was feared that their loose definition of the crime could lead to abuse. This is the third time that the government has submitted a bill on the crime of conspiracy. The core part of the bill could still allow a stretched interpretation, thus leading to abuse. Unless a clear mechanism to prevent abuse is incorporated into the bill, it should be scrapped.

Under the bill, if anyone joins a conspiracy to carry out a crime punishable by at least four years of imprisonment under existing laws, he or she would be charged with the crime of conspiracy even if the planned crime is not carried out. If people are found guilty of joining a conspiracy to commit crimes that carry imprisonment of more than 10 years, a life sentence or the death penalty, they would receive prison terms of up to five years. Those found guilty of joining a conspiracy for crimes that carry imprisonment of four years to 10 years would be punished by imprisonment of up to two years.

At present, arrests can be made at the conspiratorial or planning stage for eight exceptionally grave crimes such as treason, murder, robbery and a crime using an explosive. The bill covers as many as 615 different types of crimes including violations of the Road Traffic Law, the Corporate Tax Law, the Employment Security Law and the Public Offices Election Law. It must be asked whether such a wide inclusion of crimes under the bill is congruous with the aims of the U.N. convention, which targets crimes that are transnational in nature and involve criminal organizations. The convention is designed to enable cooperation between nations to fight such crimes as smuggling of drugs and firearms, human trafficking and international terrorism. It only covers grave crimes and other crimes specified by the convention and activities to pursue financial and material profits. It is not clear whether the bill before the Diet covers just activities that are transnational in nature.

In an attempt to counter criticism that people taking part in discussions by a civic group could be arrested, the ruling coalition has introduced a revision to the bill that says the bill would be applied only to activities of an organization whose common aim is to carry out a crime covered by the bill. But it is unclear whether the bill would cover only organizations that have committed a crime in the past or even an organization that law enforcement authorities believe will commit a crime in the future. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations and civic activists fear the bill might be applied to activities of nongovernmental organizations.

The Justice Ministry says the crime of conspiracy would not be applied to ordinary activities in citizens’ social lives and that the bill would not infringe on the right to freedom of speech and expression as the 1925-45 Peace Preservation Law did. But past experience shows that once a bill becomes law, law enforcement authorities tend to stretch their interpretation of it to suit their purposes. Another problem with the bill is that it leaves a lot of room for defining the kinds of activities or actions that might constitute conspiracy. There is the possibility that even nonverbal actions, including winking, could be taken as expression of consent to a conspiracy.

The ruling coalition has introduced another revision to the bill that says the crime of conspiracy would be established only when a person takes part in activities that contribute to carrying out a crime. But this phrase is vague.

The Democratic Party of Japan has submitted a revision that limits the application of the crime of conspiracy to a criminal organization whose activities are considered transnational and to crimes that carry imprisonment of at least five years. Still, the bill contains problems including a provision that would encourage people to turn into informers by providing information on others’ activities to the police. The Diet must address the basic question of whether the crime of conspiracy should be introduced in the first place.

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