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Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Prosecutors boast clout, success
Justice Ministry's investigative organ enjoys broad powers under assumed public mandate
Prosecutors are legal professionals who work for the state and represent the public interest. They have the authority to investigate any crime and indict and try alleged offenders.
Cases they work on are not only sent from police or based on accusations. Prosecutors also perform their own investigations, mainly those involving corruption. A recent example is the arrest and indictment of Takanori Okubo, chief secretary of Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa, by the Special Investigation Department of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor's Office.
One of the reasons behind the state's 99.9 percent conviction rate is said to be that prosecutors are very conservative and file an accusation when a guilty verdict is certain. But tainting this success rate are the occasional wrongful accusations stemming from forced confessions made during interrogations behind closed doors.
And in recent years, critics have also alleged prosecutors pursue some cases that smack of being "state-sponsored."
Following are some facts about the nation's prosecutors.
How do the roles of the prosecutors and police differ?
Police initially investigate crimes and make arrests. Prosecutors are the ones with the authority to decide whether to file charges.
When an arrest is made, police must hand over the party to prosecutors within 48 hours along with their interrogation records. From there, prosecutors, after obtaining the court's permission within 24 hours to place a suspect in custody, can hold someone for up to 20 days. During this period, they carry out interrogations while investigating with the police to pursue evidence for a trial.
Prosecutors also present their case in court.
How does one become a prosecutor?
Basically, law school students must first pass the bar exam, along with others who will eventually become judges or lawyers. After finishing a yearlong training stint at the Legal Training and Research Institute, applicants are interviewed by PPO officials before being hired.
Most prosecutors follow this process, but the law also stipulates that judges can become prosecutors, and university professors or associate professors who have taught law for more than three years are also considered qualified.
How is the organization structured and how many prosecutors are there?
The organization has four levels, corresponding to the courts: the Supreme Public Prosecutor's Office is in Tokyo, site of the Supreme Court; High Public Prosecutor's Offices are located in the eight major cities that host high courts; and there is a District Public Prosecutor's Office in each prefecture where a district court exists. Each prefecture has a single district public prosecutor's office, except for Hokkaido, which has four. Finally, there are 438 Local Public Prosecutor's Offices dealing with cases at summary courts. Criminal cases brought before family courts are dealt with by the District Public Prosecutor's Office.
In fiscal 2008, which ended in March, there were some 1,680 public prosecutors and 900 assistant prosecutors. Rookie prosecutors for 2009 have yet to be hired because the prospective newcomers are still attending the legal institute, according to the Justice Ministry.
The prosecutor general heads the organization, followed by the deputy prosecutor general and superintending prosecutors of the high prosecutor's offices. Their appointment is made by the Cabinet and is attested by the Emperor. The rest of the prosecutors are assigned to their posts and locations by the justice minister.
What is the relationship between the Justice Ministry and prosecutors?
The prosecutor's office is a special organ of the Justice Ministry, and prosecutors effectively serve as the brains of the ministry. In fact, executive positions of the ministry's bureaus are dominated by prosecutors. This setup is based on a clause in the Justice Ministry Establishment Law that states that "for the time being, when necessary, 133 employees of the Justice Ministry can be public prosecutors."
Although the post of administrative vice minister is the top bureaucratic position in most ministries, the prosecutor general is regarded as the top judicial bureaucrat, while the position of vice minister is several levels below.
The current prosecutor general, Toshiaki Hiwatari, served as vice minister in 2004.
The ministry's Criminal Affairs Bureau is responsible for the overall command and supervision of the prosecutor's offices and the exercise of state power. And of course, this bureau is made up of many prosecutors.
Does the justice minister have overall control over all investigations?
Not exactly. Article 14 of the Public Prosecutor's Office Law stipulates that the justice minister can direct and supervise prosecutors in general but can only instruct the prosecutor general regarding individual criminal cases.
This means the prosecutor general is expected to serve as a shield against the minister to prevent political meddling in investigations.
Observers say, however, that this also means the justice minister can technically interfere with investigations by directing the prosecutor general. A justice minister has only exercised this right once, in 1954, when Takeru Inukai, at the request of Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida, ordered the prosecutor general to refrain from arresting Eisaku Sato, the secretary general of the ruling Liberal Party, for allegedly taking bribes. Inukai resigned soon afterward.
What is the Special Investigation Department?
The Special Investigation Department deals mainly with white-collar offenses, including tax evasion, corporate crimes and corruption involving politicians. Only Tokyo, Osaka and Nagoya, where most of corporate Japan does its business, have the special squads.
But the Justice Ministry says 10 more district PPOs also have units with similar functions.
The special squad is supposed to cooperate with police and other investigative organizations, including the National Tax Agency and the Securities and Exchange Surveillance Commission, but they also work independently.
A prominent case handled by the SID was the Lockheed bribery case in the late 1970s in which former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka was arrested and indicted for receiving bribes from the aircraft manufacturer to pressure All Nippon Airways into purchasing its planes.
In the 1980s, the SID in Tokyo investigated the Recruit Co. stock-for-favors scam. Livedoor Co. founder and former CEO Takafumi Horie and former fund manager Yoshiaki Murakami were also arrested and indicted by the special investigation unit in Tokyo.
Some claim the actions of the SID constitute "state-sponsored investigations." What do they mean by this?
Generally, critics brand some cases targeting politicians and celebrities as being politically motivated, or done with the intention of shaping public opinion.
Morikazu Tanaka, a lawyer and former SID member in Osaka, has said "state-sponsored investigations are done to protect the political regime." But he and others, including Diet member Muneo Suzuki, who was also indicted by the Tokyo SID and later convicted of bribery, believe such probes are not ordered by politicians but instead are motivated from within the prosecutorial organization.
Is it true prosecutors use "furo shiki" traditional Japanese wrapping cloth to bring things to court?
Yes. Typically, they are navy blue and bear the prosecutor's emblem, an amalgam of the sun, chrysanthemum and golden leaves.
A public relations official at the Justice Ministry said the furoshiki is considered standard equipment and most prosecutors have them.
Prosecutors say the furoshiki come in handy because they can contain many documents needed in court, then later be folded up and put away.
They are also considered useful to cover the evidence that they bring to trial.