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Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011

SENTAKU MAGAZINE

Up the prosecutor's road

Public Prosecutor General Hiroshi Obayashi was forced to resign after being in office for only six months in the wake of a series of scandals involving the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office's special investigation squad, including the tampering of evidence by one of its prosecutors.

This was the first time that the man holding the highest and most powerful post in law enforcement had to step down to take responsibility for blunders committed by others at lower levels.

The prosecution was rocked by the ruling handed down by the Osaka District Court on Sept. 10, acquitting Ms. Atsuko Muraki, a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, whom the prosecutors charged with falsifying an official document. The court threw out depositions of witnesses brought against her by prosecutors, calling them fabricated and groundless. Eleven days later, the prosecutors decided not to appeal the case, making her acquittal final.

Subsequently, a prosecutor with the special squad and his two bosses — the chief and deputy chief of the squad — were arrested and indicted for manipulating evidence.

A thorny road lies ahead for Haruo Kasama, former head of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office who has succeeded Obayashi, as he has to handle the difficult task of regaining public trust in the law enforcement authorities.

Even after the arrest and indictment of the Osaka office public prosecutors, Obayashi reportedly had no intention of resigning, apparently because none of his predecessors had ever stepped down even though some public prosecutors were involved in serious scandals.

What led him to resign? One journalist suspects that he was pressured by powerful political figures such as former Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshito Sengoku and Shizuka Kamei, head of the People's New Party, the junior partner in the current coalition government led by the Democratic Party of Japan.

Another factor behind Obayashi's resignation, according to the same journalist, is an attempt by the prosecution authorities to quash politicians' attempt to deprive them of their traditional right to appoint high-ranking prosecutors. He points out in this connection that certain lawmakers within the ruling DPJ are calling for making the appointment of the public prosecutor general subject to approval by the Diet or for appointing an "outsider" to the post.

Had Obayashi stayed on the job, he, in accordance with the traditional pattern, would have been succeeded first by Hiroshi Ozu, head of the Sapporo High Public Prosecutors Office, and then later by Tsunetaro Ohno, administrative vice justice minister.

The judicial journalist speculates that to minimize the chaos arising out of the scandals and to prevent intervention from politicians, Obayashi sought to name Kasama as his successor on his own by breaking the traditional pattern. Since Kasama was to reach the legal retirement age of 63 on Jan. 2, 2011, Obayashi had to give up his post before the end of the year in order to allow Kasama to assume the top prosecution post, where the retirement age is 65.

Ironically, however, Kasama is said to have preferred working outside of Tokyo. It is reported that he questioned the Tokyo public prosecutors' decision to investigate the alleged improper handling of political funds by the political funds management body of former DPJ chief Ichiro Ozawa. Although they arrested Ozawa's secretaries, they failed to arrest or indict Ozawa. (Subsequently, a citizens' legal panel decided that Ozawa should be indicted).

It is also very likely that the way the Osaka public prosecutors brought Ms. Muraki to trial appeared to Kasama as extremely slipshod. He has long experience in investigating criminal cases.

Kasama is unique in that he graduated from Chuo University, a private institution in Tokyo, in sharp contrast with the majority of civil servants who hail from former Imperial universities such as the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University. He is the first graduate of a private university to serve as public prosecutor general.

He has not served in any Justice Ministry post, but has had a good deal of experience prosecuting political scandals and other criminal cases. Even with that track record, he will face great difficulty in rectifying the structural problems within the law enforcement system and in regaining public trust because the series of blunders recently committed by public prosecutors are deep rooted.

There has been strong opinion that the whole interrogation of suspects by police and prosecutors be recorded on video and shown at trial, that the entire prosecution system be revamped, that appointments of high-ranking prosecutors be made subject to the approval of politicians, and that special investigation squads, which are assigned to investigate political and major financial scandals, be abolished.

To make matters worse for the prosecution, there have been more and more cases in which the courts have acquitted defendants indicted by prosecutors.

Also working against the prosecution is the adoption in 2009 of the lay judge system for criminal trials in which ordinary citizens sit with professional judges to determine not only if a defendant is guilty or innocent, but also the sentence to be handed down.

As Kasama starts to tread on the thorny road of resolving all these problems, several experts in judicial affairs point out that the fundamental cause of the prosecution's problems lies in the lack of experienced prosecutors who are sufficiently competent to give his or her subordinates detailed instructions and guidance on how to conduct criminal investigations.

The only way to regain public trust, these experts say, is for public prosecutors to prove they are capable of objectively handling criminal cases, cracking down on the increasingly sophisticated techniques used by criminals, uncovering crimes that have often been overlooked and handling all cases in a manner acceptable to citizens.

Great expectations have been placed on the newly appointed public prosecutor general, who has accumulated broad investigative experience.

This is an abridged translation of an article from the January issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering Japanese political, economic and social issues.


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