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Thursday, June 21, 2007

Crime victim bill enacted; critics fear trials turning into outlets for revenge

Staff writer

The House of Councilors passed a controversial bill Wednesday that allows people victimized by crime to confront defendants in trials, despite strong concerns that it could undermine the criminal justice system and turn courtrooms into venues of vengeance.

The bill to revise the Criminal Procedure Law was passed with support from both the ruling coalition, led by the Liberal Democratic Party, and the opposition-leading Democratic Party of Japan. The law is expected to take effect by autumn 2008.

The new law will allow the victimized to sit with prosecutors in the courtroom bar and, if permitted by the judge, state opinions, question defendants and witnesses, and recommend sentences.

The types of trials victims will be allowed to take part in will involve heinous crimes, including murder and rape, as well as fatal cases of professional negligence, including traffic accidents. If the victim is dead or incapacitated, family members deemed victimized parties will be allowed to participate.

Tokiwa University Chairman Hidemichi Morosawa, a victimologist and criminologist, said the new system is inevitable, "considering the history and the real nature of the criminal justice system."

"The history of humanity is that if (someone) hits (you), (you) hit back," Morosawa said, reckoning such acts of revenge were permitted until "the enactment of modern law, when the government took away the right to retribution — or rather, the government was to carry out (retribution) on behalf" of the victims.

People in Japan victimized by crime have been kept from the trial process. It wasn't until 2000, when the crime-victims protection law was enacted, that they got a chance to express their feelings in court and access trial records.

Another major step was taken in 2004 when a fundamental law to protect victims' rights was enacted, promoting financial compensation and medical and welfare support for crime victims.

Japan is finally addressing the rights of crime victims, Morosawa said, figuring the country is 20 to 30 years behind the West.

But some legal corners, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, are concerned the new system could turn courts into arenas for revenge. Morosawa has no problem with this.

"Why shouldn't (the courtroom) be a place for retaliation?" Morosawa asked. No one "can deprive a victim of the right to vengeance in accordance with the law of nature. The modern state prohibits revenge using physical force, but legal vengeance should be permitted."

Hiroko Goto, a professor at Chiba University Law School, stressed that the ability to recommend sentences leaves crime victims open to exploitation.

"It is hard to deny that with the victims participating in a criminal trial, harsher punishments will be handed down," Goto said. "Victims are like a symbol of retribution, and . . . those running the trials are bound to hand down harsher punishment at the sight of (the victims) sitting inside the bar."

The new law will also pose a grave danger to judicial balance, Goto added.

"Balance (inside the courtroom) is extremely important," she said. "By including the element of vengeance, the balance shifts and discussions must be held on whether to change (the practice of protecting) the defendants' rights . . . but nothing of the sort is being considered."

If victims are required to participate in trial proceedings, a better support system will also be needed to avoid traumatizing them again, Goto said.

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The Japan Times

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