Mr. Ozawa’s bittersweet court victory

The Tokyo District Court on Thursday acquitted former Democratic Party of Japan leader Ichiro Ozawa of charges he violated the Political Funds Control Law. But the ruling shows that it is a bittersweet victory for Ozawa. He needs to pay careful attention to his behavior as a politician, and make every effort to play a constructive role, because the current political landscape is a bleak one where the light at the end of the tunnel for Japan’s future and its people is not readily apparent.

In the course of the trial, it surfaced that a public prosecutor employed irregular methods in questioning Mr. Tomohiro Ishikawa, one of Mr. Ozawa’s former secretaries and now a Lower House member. Prosecution authorities should examine themselves and make serious efforts to prevent the recurrence of questionable actions by their members, which could undermine the nation’s justice system.

In February, the court rejected as evidence a key prosecution report of testimony made by Mr. Ishikawa. The report said Mr. Ishikawa asked Mr. Ozawa if he could falsify a report of Mr. Ozawa’s political fund management body Rikuzankai, and that he received Mr. Ozawa’s approval. The court at that time said that in getting this testimony, a public prosecutor with the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office employed “illegal and unjust” interrogation methods.

Thursday’s ruling is likely to help increase Mr. Ozawa’s influence within the DPJ. Since he is a leading DPJ figure opposed to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s plan to raise the consumption tax, his acquittal is likely to embolden other similar-minded DPJ lawmakers who are also opposed to the tax hike to increase their resistance.

But Mr. Ozawa must take utmost care to prevent the impression from emerging that he is leading an intraparty opposition faction against Mr. Noda just for the sake of opposition. He must present concrete proposals and ideas that address the difficult tasks of how to stimulate and strengthen the economy, stabilize the social welfare system and reduce over the long run the nation’s heavy reliance on debt financing.

Mr. Ozawa was charged with conspiring with three former secretaries to falsify reports submitted by Rikuzankai in 2004 and 2005 over a ¥400 million land purchase in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. He took out ¥400 million in bank loans by using ¥400 million of his own funds as collateral. He handed his ¥400 million to Mr. Ishikawa. In September 2011, the Tokyo District Court gave suspended sentences to Mr. Ishikawa and the two other former secretaries.

Apparently to Mr. Ozawa’s disappointment, the court on Thursday said it is logical to presume from circumstantial evidence that Mr. Ozawa did receive reports from secretaries on how the ¥400 million was to be handled in a Rikuzankai report and that Mr. Ozawa gave his approval. It decided that his secretaries failed to record the ¥400 million given by him as an entry and changed the date of the land purchase, thus committing legal irregularities.

The court’s ruling said that Mr. Ishikawa feared that if the ¥400 million appeared in the Rikuzankai report as having come from Mr. Ozawa himself, the revelation would receive massive media coverage and hurt Mr. Ozawa politically.

But the court ruling said there is the possibility that Mr. Ozawa was not told by his secretaries that the way in which the ¥400 million in funding was handled was in violation of the law. It also said that he may never have imagined that false entries were inserted into Rikuzankai reports. Thus, the court concluded that although Mr. Ozawa was contacted by his secretaries beforehand, that does not constitute a conspiracy.

Mr. Ozawa’s defense team argued that he used to leave the accounting details for his secretaries to handle and that he did not receive detailed reports from them concerning the matter. Thus it said that he did not take part in a conspiracy. But the court denied the defense counsel’s claim. It also said that Mr. Ozawa’s claims that he did not see the Rikuzankai reports in question even after the Rikuzankai case surfaced is questionable. In view of these factors, it may be said that Mr. Ozawa’s acquittal appears rather gray.

Mr. Ozawa was not indicted by public prosecutors but on the strength of a vote by a prosecution inquest committee, an 11-member citizens’ judicial panel. The special investigation squad of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office twice decided not to indict him due to insufficient evidence. After the Tokyo No. 5 prosecution inquest committee voted for the second time in favor of indicting him in September 2010 following the prosecution’s no-indictment decisions, court-appointed lawyers indicted him under a new prosecution inquest system introduced in 2009.

Mr. Ozawa’s trial is the second case in a row in which a defendant indicted under the 2009 system has been acquitted. Informed public discussions should be held on how to improve the system. The biggest problem with the system is lack of transparency. It cannot be known what discussions panel members had and what kinds of advice a lawyer helping them gave. A person whose possible indictment is discussed by the panel is not given a chance to present his or her case.

In Mr. Ozawa’s trial, it came to light that a prosecution report that members of the inquest committee used in casting their votes was erroneous. But the court on Thursday upheld the panel’s decision that favored his indictment. The court said that even if a prosecution inquest committee’s decision is based on an erroneous investigation report, its decision favoring indictment cannot be nullified. This decision itself reinforces the case for reforming the prosecution inquest system all the more.