TOKYO -- After a fierce parliamentary battle that produced legislation expanding state surveillance powers, the public is left grappling with questions ranging from the law's scope to the handling of lone wolves who plan terrorist acts.
Under changes to a law concerning organized crime, authorities can prosecute "criminal organizations" of two or more people for planning or preparing serious crimes. Including homicide and human trafficking, 277 criminal acts are covered. Once at least one member begins concrete preparations for the act -- surveying an intended crime site, for example -- the entire group can be prosecuted.
After the law takes effect July 11, Japan will ratify the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, as early as this summer. This will enable Tokyo to share information on relevant investigations with governments around the world.
Guilt by association
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government insists the law can be used only against members of such groups as gangs or terrorist organizations, and not ordinary citizens. Three previous attempts at such legislation fell through largely because they would have allowed any collection of people to be targeted for "conspiring" to commit a crime -- vague wording that critics feared could implicate a group of colleagues joking at the bar about socking an unpopular supervisor, for example. The new law could ensnare such a crowd only if they were members of a criminal organization and were actively preparing to do harm.
But exactly what constitutes a criminal organization is unclear. An organization calling itself an environmental protection group, for example, could be charged for plotting one of the 277 listed crimes "if it is determined that they are, in fact, a group that commits serious crimes," Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda said during deliberations on the bill.
The law would also apply to ordinary groups that have become criminal in some way. If a group turns criminal, "its members cease to be ordinary people," Kaneda said, insisting all the while that "ordinary" people could not be charged. But it can be difficult to say exactly when a group becomes criminal -- Aum Shinrikyo, the millenarian cult behind the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, was considered a mere religious group before it turned violent.
Opposition lawmakers sought to clarify these ambiguities. But as discussion was drawing to a close, Kaneda muddied the waters further, noting that people peripherally involved with, though not necessarily members of, a criminal organization could also be charged for helping plan a serious crime.
It was while the distinction between ordinary people and "peripheral" members was being discussed that the ruling bloc took the rare step of cutting off debate in the upper house Judicial Affairs Committee. Bypassing a vote on the bill there, the parties brought the measure before the entire chamber, where it was approved. It will therefore fall to law enforcement to determine whether the law applies in ambiguous cases.
The Abe government maintains the law is necessary to let Japan join the U.N. organized crime convention, which the government says is needed to tighten anti-terrorism measures ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But acts of terrorism carried out by individuals, for example, fall outside the scope of the law. Addressing these threats will require additional measures, for example tighter security at customs and immigration checkpoints.