TOKYO -- Japanese prosecutors on Thursday arrested former justice minister Katsuyuki Kawai and his upper house lawmaker wife, Anri, over campaign finance issues, dealing a major blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Katsuyuki, a 57-year-old member of the lower house, is suspected of having bribed local assembly members who helped with his wife's successful campaign for an upper house seat in July. Prosecutors allege that Katsuyuki handed out a total of 25 million yen ($234,000) in cash to around 100 people, mostly local mayors and assembly members in her district, potentially violating campaign finance law.
Most of the cash was allegedly given by Katsuyuki in person at the recipients' offices or homes under the pretext of assisting with their political activity or to congratulate them for recent election victories.
Both Katsuyuki and Anri have denied the allegations of bribery during voluntary questioning by prosecutors, sources said.
Katsuyuki Kawai resigned as justice minister in October last year during an ongoing investigation. The last time an ex-minister was arrested in Japan was in 2002. Kawai also used to be a foreign policy adviser to Abe.
Lawmakers cannot be arrested during a session of the Diet without parliamentary consent, so prosecutors waited until the session was over on Wednesday.
Anri, 46, is embroiled in separate allegations that her secretary paid more than legally permitted to volunteers who campaigned for her from loudspeaker vans. The secretary was found guilty in a district-court ruling on Tuesday, raising the possibility that Anri's election will be nullified.
Japan strictly limits campaign financing to ensure a level playing field for candidates.Both lawmakers left the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Wednesday in an attempt to minimize political damage to the party.
The scandal comes as Abe grapples with the economic fallout from the new coronavirus pandemic. Support for his government has already tanked over its response to the public health crisis, including a shortage of masks and other key supplies, as well as slow delivery of benefits to people affected.
The high-profile case is certain to damage Abe's leadership. Abe, who is in the eighth year of his current prime ministership, is Japan's longest-serving leader. But his achievements have been overshadowed by questions over political ethics, including last year's "cherry-blossom scandal." In that affair, Abe and other politicians are alleged to have used a government-sponsored cherry-blossom viewing event to reward constituents.
The government has also been hit by the arrest of another LDP lawmaker, Tsukasa Akimoto, last December on allegations that he took bribes from a Chinese company in exchange for help with a government-backed casino project.