Editorials

A new name for old conspiracy bill

The government’s past three attempts to make it punishable for people to conspire to commit a crime — even if they don’t act on the plan — has been so unpopular and widely criticized that the bills submitted to the Diet in 2003, 2004 and 2005 were scrapped without even a vote. The Abe administration’s latest attempt to revive the controversial scheme — in an amendment to the law against organized crime — seeks to win public support by characterizing it as anti-terrorism legislation, ostensibly narrowing the scope of its targets and adding more conditions to establishing a criminal case.

It is important to bolster measures to forestall acts of terrorism. Whether the planned legislation is the correct way to do so is a question that should be answered when it is submitted to the Diet for deliberation. Ordinary citizens and lawmakers alike should also be aware that the very nature of criminalizing the acts of plotting and preparing for crimes will result in greater surveillance of people’s activities by investigative authorities.

The government and the ruling coalition say the lack of such legislation keeps Japan out of sync with much of the rest of the world, pointing out that it is among only about a dozen countries that have yet to ratify a 2000 United Nations treaty aimed at fighting global organized crime because it lacks such a domestic law. Opponents say there’s no need for such blanket legislation since the Penal Code already provides for the punishment of people who prepare to commit a range of serious crimes such as murder and that these provisions should enable the nation to join the U.N. convention.

A new version of the legislation reportedly prepared by the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for deliberation in the Diet this fall states it will target “organized crime groups” — an apparent response to criticism that “groups” identified as targets in the previous bills are so broadly defined that even businesses, citizens’ groups and labor unions could be targeted. The planned bill will punish people when they not only plot and agree to commit crimes but actually prepare to carry out the acts, for example, by raising funds or procuring the necessary equipment — after the previous versions raised concern, rather sarcastically, that people might be prosecuted for discussing and concurring to kill somebody they don’t like while drinking at a bar.

Critics of the plan charge that the legislation’s targets will remain vague as long as it’s the investigation authorities that determine what constitutes “organized crime groups,” and that the act of “preparing” for a crime would be subject to broad interpretation and could be applied to a wide range of activities. Such features, they say, would allow investigators to expand the law’s reach at their discretion.

Preparing to carry out grave crimes such as murder would be punishable by up to five years in prison. People could be punished by up to two years in jail for planning other types of crimes covered in the legislation, while plotting and preparing for petty offenses will not be punishable.

Under the Penal Code, people are in principle prosecuted for the act — or attempted act — of committing a crime. But people can be punished for preparing to commit certain serious crimes such as murder, kidnap for random, burglary, arson and counterfeiting. There are no legal provisions for penalizing the act of conspiring to commit a crime, aside from rare exceptions such as plotting an insurgency. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations has long criticized the government’s attempts to create a provision against conspiring to commit more than 600 types of crimes, saying it would shake the foundation of the nation’s penal law system.

Now the bill prepared by the Abe administration states that “preparing for terrorism and other organized crimes” will be penalized, although the broad range of crimes to be targeted, including such offenses as theft and fraud, will be unchanged from previous bills.

Lawmakers in Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party began calling for the legislation after 130 people were killed in multiple terrorist attacks in Paris last November. Officials are said to have readied the latest version of the legislation as early as last fall. The fact that the Abe administration waited so long to prepare it for deliberation in the Diet appears to reflect ongoing concerns over the legislation and the administration’s desire not to have a Diet debate on the bill affect popular support for the ruling coalition in the Upper House election in July.

The world has since been swept by a wave of terrorist attacks, including an incident in Dhaka in July that left 20 hostages, including seven Japanese, dead. With the ruling alliance having secured sweeping victories in the July election, it would not be surprising if the administration thinks that the legislation dressed up as an anti-terrorism measure would finally win public support, especially as there is a strong case for beefing up security against the threat of terrorism as Japan prepares to host the 2020 Summer Olympic Games.

If the administration submits the legislation in the Diet session this fall, its merits and potential problems should be scrutinized. One thing that seems certain is that the legislation will inevitably require the investigative authorities to step up their public surveillance activities. The police and prosecutors were recently given more surveillance tools when the enactment of relevant laws for reform of the criminal justice system in May enabled them to use wiretapping in a wider range of criminal investigations. The legislation, if enacted, will likely prompt investigators to use such tools more often. Lawmakers involved in discussing the bill must be cognizant of the possible consequences.