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Saturday, March 8, 2003

Sakai arrested after Diet strips him of immunity

Staff writer

LDP lawmaker Takanori Sakai was arrested Friday on suspicion of violating the Political Funds Control Law immediately after the House of Representatives stripped him of his Diet immunity.

News photo
House of Representatives lawmaker Takanori Sakai's seat sits unoccupied during a Lower House plenary session Friday. Sakai was arrested later in the day for allegedly violating the Political Funds Control Law.

Lawmakers are protected from arrest, unless Diet members vote otherwise, while the legislature is in session.

Prosecutors said Sakai violated the law by ordering his secretaries not to report some 120 million yen in corporate donations between 1997 and 2001.

Two of his aides were arrested earlier this week in connection with case.

He is also suspected of ordering his aides to destroy evidence before prosecutors searched his offices and home, prompting investigative authorities to file the request for his immediate arrest.

One of Sakai's lawyers said Friday that the Lower House member has denied demanding contributions or destroying evidence. Sakai has said he will not step down as a Diet lawmaker.

His arrest marks the first time a Diet member has been arrested on suspicion of violating the Political Funds Control Law. But it was the 15th time in the postwar era that a lawmaker has been arrested while Diet is in session.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, fearing a voter backlash over the seemingly endless tide of money-related scandals, expelled Sakai from the party upon his arrest. On Thursday, Sakai submitted a letter saying he wanted to leave the party.

With Sakai's arrest, money-related scandals may become the dominant issue of the ordinary Diet session, nudging aside the opposition camp's original plan to focus on Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's failure to pull the country out of its protracted economic slump, Diet sources said.

"Economy, economy and economy. That should have been the main theme of this Diet session," one opposition party leader said. "But now the economy issues could be dwarfed (by political scandals), although we did not intend to make it so."

On Tuesday, the House of Councilors Budget Committee will hold a special session devoted to money and politics. Sometime next week, the Lower House will put farm minister Tadamori Oshima in the hot seat by inviting unsworn witnesses to give their version of suspected money scandals involving his former secretaries.

On Friday, Katsuya Okada, secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, said his party will submit a no-confidence motion against Oshima next week. This may force Koizumi to make a difficult decision: sack the scandal-tainted minister or risk further erosion to his already pock-marked public approval rating by appearing to endorse embezzlement.

"I think the time is coming for Oshima to pay the price (of his aides' wrongdoings)," said Okada, who did not rule out boycotting Diet sessions as a means of protest against the ruling triumvirate.

The opposition parties are aiming their sights at Koizumi, who they say has shown little initiative reforming his party or implementing stricter controls on political funds.

The four parties -- the DPJ, the Japanese Communist Party, the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party -- said they will jointly submit to the Diet next week a recommendation that Sakai resign from the Lower House.

Top officials of New Komeito and the New Conservative Party -- junior coalition partners to the ruling LDP -- said they will support such a resolution.

But at a news conference Friday, LDP Secretary General Taku Yamasaki only said that the party will make a decision once the resolution is submitted.

Information from Kyodo added

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The Japan Times

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