Former Democratic Party of Japan chief Ichiro Ozawa was indicted Monday over accounting irregularities linked to his political funds management body Rikuzankai.

The indictment will affect not only his political survival but also the fate of Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s administration. It could also bring confusion to Japan’s politics in general when Japan faces difficult domestic and diplomatic issues.

Mr. Ozawa was indicted by three court-appointed lawyers following two votes by the Tokyo No. 5 Prosecution Inquest Committee, a citizens’ legal panel. A May 2009 revision of the relevant law empowers such a panel, consisting of 11 citizens, to overturn a public prosecutors’ decision not to indict a person if it votes for indictment twice in a row, each vote taking place after prosecutors decide not to indict the person. Japan has 165 citizens’ legal panels.

The charge against Mr. Ozawa is that in conspiracy with three former aides, who have been indicted: (1) he did not list in a 2004 report the sum of ¥400 million that he had lent to Rikuzankai in 2004; and (2) instead of reporting ¥352 million used for the 2004 purchase of a plot of Tokyo land in 2004, he listed it in a 2005 report, thus violating the Political Funds Control Law.

He is the first Diet member to be indicted under “mandatory indictment” based on a decision by a citizens’ panel. While many people have doubts about how he managed his political funds, Mr. Ozawa takes the position that he has explained all relevant matters to the mass media.

He also has expressed his readiness to talk before the Diet, but he has yet to appear before the Lower House’s Council on Political Ethics.

One of the lingering questions is why Rikuzankai, which borrowed ¥400 million from Mr. Ozawa ostensibly to buy the land in question, had to take out bank loans to buy the land. If Mr. Ozawa had clearly answered this and other points related to his handling of funds, he might have been able to avoid the current situation, which has not only weakened him politically, but also has caused divisions within the Democratic Party of Japan and in the Diet. In the trial, Mr. Ozawa should clarify these points.

It is clear that Mr. Kan has used Mr. Ozawa as a political scapegoat to buoy his Cabinet’s approval rating. Mr. Kan likely views the Ozawa scandal as the only available means to increase his own public support given the current economic stagnation, worries about the future of Japan’s social welfare system and his Cabinet’s awkward handling of the diplomatic row with China over a ship collision near the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture.

As a result of Mr. Ozawa’s indictment, the DPJ leadership may temporarily suspend his party membership and ask him to voluntarily leave the party or expel him from the party. But attention must be paid to the fact that Mr. Ozawa’s indictment is different from those of politicians involved in past bribery scandals and that he is innocent until the court finds him guilty.

In the past, when public prosecutors indicted a politician, they had strong evidence against him or her, and indictment almost meant that he or she was guilty. In Mr. Ozawa’s case, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office’s special investigation squad carried out a thorough investigation for more than a year, to the extent of confiscating documents, and questioned him four times on a voluntary basis. The prosecution office decided not to indict him in February 2010.

The Tokyo No. 5 Prosecution Inquest Committee voted in April in favor of his indictment. The prosecutors again decided not to indict him in May. The citizens’ panel in September again voted in favor of his indictment, thus overturning the prosecution’s no-indictment decision.

It must be noted that the prosecution’s no-indictment decision had been based on lack of evidence and that Mr. Ozawa’s case is not one of alleged bribery. A prosecution’s record of vague testimony by Mr. Tomohiro Ishikawa, Mr. Ozawa’s former aide and a Lower House member, that he had “reported and got approval” from Mr. Ozawa, is probably the only concrete evidence the court-appointed lawyers have against him.

It is hoped that the trial will delve into the reliability of this testimony as evidence. It also seems that the citizens’ panel went beyond the purview of its responsibility. Its charge against Mr. Ozawa includes his alleged failure to put in a 2004 report the ¥400 million he lent to Rikuzankai in 2004, but this point was not referred to by the public prosecutors when they decided not to indict him.

Sufficient expert discussions should be conducted on whether a citizens’ legal panel may add such an item. Opposition parties in the Diet will mount their attacks on the Kan administration over Mr. Ozawa’s indictment. But the bickering over his case will be of little help in enhancing people’s well-being. The Diet should handle Mr. Ozawa’s case in a manner that will not affect ordinary Diet deliberations.

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