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Friday, March 30, 2007

Victim participation in trials risky, experts say


Staff writer

A bill that would allow people victimized by crime to participate in court proceedings could be detrimental to the criminal trial system and needs further debate, a group of lawyers, scholars and Diet members said Thursday.

Earlier this month, the government approved a bill to revise the criminal procedure law to enable those victimized by crimes to make statements in court and question defendants and witnesses.

The Diet is set to begin deliberations on the bill during the current ordinary session.

"The court is (a place) to acknowledge facts based on appropriate evidence," said Yoshio Takano, vice president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. "The criminal court should not be a place ruled by emotion; that is the premise of a criminal court."

Lawyer-turned-lawmaker Tomomi Inada of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party member also said the bill needs further deliberation.

"I am all for heading in the direction of expanding the rights of crime victims," Inada said. "But I believe that there needs to be careful discussion over whether the victim should be able to directly ask the defendant a question."

If enacted, the legislation would enable the victimized to sit with prosecutors, press defendants for facts and ask judges to hand down penalties other than those requested by prosecutors.

"What will the judges do when the prosecutors demand a life sentence while the victims demand the death sentence?" asked Mizuho Fukushima, leader of the Social Democratic Party. "I believe the bill will distort the criminal court system and it could lead to misjudgments and be used as a means of revenge."

The bill states that the new system should be limited to heinous crimes including murder, injury resulting in death and negligent homicide, including traffic accidents.

The bill was introduced in response to calls from the victimized that their voices be heard in court. However, a member of a victims' group also at the meeting objected to the bill. Tadaari Katayama, who lost his 3-year-old son in a traffic accident in 1997, said the bill "should be scrapped" and started from scratch because it lacks the consensus of the general public.

Toshiki Odanaka, a professor emeritus of law at Tohoku University, pointed out that increasing the number of people on the prosecutors' side will create an imbalance in the courtroom. "The weight will shift heavily toward the prosecutors' side, and it will become difficult to say that it is a fair system," he said.



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