Editorials

Prosecutor retirement revision a dangerous step

Extending the age of retirement is normal in a society where people are living much longer than past generations, with many even reaching the “100-year life.” But the issue of raising the mandatory retirement age for public prosecutors should be treated with utmost care.

A proposed legal revision that would raise the retirement age for prosecutors became the center of controversy this week when it was taken up by the Lower House. Unlike officials in other administrative organizations, prosecutors have wide powers to investigate, arrest and indict anyone, even prime ministers and other high officials. They must remain highly neutral and independent from other authorities and political powers. Since the proposed revision could allow the Cabinet to intervene in the personnel affairs of prosecutors’ offices, many experts fear it could jeopardize the independence of prosecutors and the separation of powers.

It is deeply disturbing that the ruling coalition is trying to push this change through the Lower House this week. Ample time should be given for discussion of a bill as important as this, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe should sincerely address the public’s concerns over it.

The proposed revision of the public prosecutor’s office law would raise the retirement age of prosecutors in stages to 65 from the current 63. The revision would also stipulate that high-ranking public prosecutors such as the deputy prosecutor general and the superintendent public prosecutor at high public prosecutor’s offices should retire when they turn 63. What raised public concern is a special provision that would allow the Cabinet to delay the retirement of such senior prosecutors by up to three years if it is feared their retirement would cause “serious disruptions in the operation of government affairs.”

If prosecutors are involved in investigating a political scandal, could they feel totally independent of a Cabinet that has the power to influence when they retire? Since last weekend, an unprecedented number of people, including legal experts, have taken to Twitter to protest the bill, fearing that political leaders could utilize this provision to keep senior-level prosecutors who are close to them in their positions for a longer period.

Abe has repeatedly said the change is aimed at making “better use of the knowledge and experience of senior officials,’’ but public prosecutors by nature are different from other government employees and their retirement should not be influenced by political decisions.

Though public prosecutors are part of the executive branch, their duties are closely linked to the nation’s judicial system. They hold extensive power in criminal investigations and criminal trials, and it is stipulated in the postwar Constitution that “public prosecutors shall be subject to the rule-making power of the Supreme Court.”

Because of these special duties, their status and retirement age have been determined by the public prosecutor’s office law, separately from the National Public Service Law that governs bureaucrats. The public prosecutor’s office law is also categorized as a special law, which takes precedence over the National Public Service Law regarding prosecutors.

In January, Abe came under heavy criticism after a decision was made to extend the tenure of Hiromu Kurokawa, chief prosecutor in the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor’s Office and who is believed to be close to the administration. The tenure of Kurokawa, who was to reach the retirement age of 63 in February, was extended for six months through a provision in the National Public Service Law.

This provision allows public servants to have their retirement extended by as much as one year if it is judged their departure would seriously hinder the execution of public duties. Many speculated that the move was politically motivated and that by extending his tenure, Abe hopes to appoint him as the successor to Public Prosecutor General Nobuo Inada when he retires this summer.

Many people now see the proposed revision now before the Lower House in connection with the Kurokawa case and view it as an attempt to give legal grounding, ex post facto, to this decision.

Another reason why the public grew jittery is that this special provision was not in the original draft when the revision was discussed in the Cabinet Legislation Bureau last October. It was included in the bill submitted to the Diet in March. Unless the government gives a convincing reason why this provision was included, it will only increase the public’s mistrust of it.

At a time when the world is struggling to bring the coronavirus pandemic under control, it is hard to understand why Abe is saying this revision to the public prosecutor’s office law must be approved in the current Diet session. With so many questions unanswered, the bill should not pass the Diet as written. What the government should do now is heed the public outcry and focus on saving people’s lives and this country’s economy.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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