March 22, 2017 11:55 am JST

Q&A on Japan's conspiracy legislation

After past failures to pass bills for prosecuting criminal plots, Tokyo takes terrorism angle

Osaka police train for stopping an attack by a gun-wielding terrorist.

TOKYO -- Japan's government approved a bill Tuesday for introduction in the Diet that would allow prosecuting would-be terrorists for preparing to carry out an attack. But past attempts to define what constitutes criminal conspiracy have failed to pass the parliament. Here are some points to know about the controversial new proposal.

Q: Why is the Abe government in such a hurry to have this bill passed?

A: The government aims to join the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, to which 187 other countries and territories are party. The pact's merits include an increased ability to share information on organized crime investigations with authorities in other countries. One of the conditions of signing on to the convention, according to the government, is having the legal framework to prosecute criminal organizations at the point when they agree to commit a crime. But Hiroshi Ogushi, policy affairs chief of the opposition Democratic Party, says Japan can ratify the convention without such a sweeping domestic law.

Q: Why did the past three attempts to pass a conspiracy bill fail? 

A: Legislation proposed by past governments sought to make punishable acts of conspiring to commit serious crimes as a "group." Such a broad definition sparked fear that harmless situations -- say, co-workers talking at a pub about beating up their boss -- could run afoul of the law.

This time, the government has dropped the word conspiracy and adopted the label of plotting to commit "terrorism" and other organized crimes. This rewriting seeks to position the legislation as part of the Japan's counterterrorism preparations for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. 

Q: Is the bill, in its substance, much different from past ones?

A: It targets "organized criminal groups" and specifies terrorist groups among them. The version of the bill approved Tuesday by the cabinet covers 277 crimes, down from 676 in an early draft. Another difference is that the threshold for prosecution has gone up -- before charges are brought, a group needs to have "plans" to commit a crime, and at least one member must conduct a preparatory activity, such as casing the intended crime scene or acquiring financing.

Q: Would ordinary law-abiding citizens really be safe from prosecution under such a law?

A: This concern gets to the heart of why opinion on the bill is so sharply divided. The Abe government says the legislation is not meant to target upstanding companies, religious groups or labor unions. However, the government notes, a group's objectives can change. A company that commits serial fraud or a cult that stockpiles chemical weapons could have conspiracy charges brought against them.

The grounds for making such a determination probably will prove a major point of contention in the Diet. Past cases show how difficult this can be. Tokyo investigators struggled to determine at what point Aum Shinrikyo, the cult behind the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, became criminal.

Other issues include determining when a group has agreed to commit a crime and what constitutes preparation. "Drawing vague lines could lead to cases of wrongful conviction as the result of arbitrary investigations," warned a senior member of the opposition Democratic Party.

Q: What are the bill's prospects of becoming law in the current parliamentary session?

A: Reaching a consensus may prove hard going, even within the ruling coalition. Komeito, the junior partner to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is looking skittish about trying to ram the bill through the Diet ahead of Tokyo municipal council elections in July. 

(Nikkei)

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