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Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2011
Ozawa saga moves to trial phase
By JUN HONGO and SETSUKO KAMIYA
Former Democratic Party of Japan President Ichiro Ozawa has been indicted and will stand trial over his role in a political funding scandal.
Following is a recap of the case's salient points and the process that led to his mandatory indictment:
What is the main offense?
At the heart of the pending trial is a ¥340 million property in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, that Rikuzankai, Ozawa's political fund management body, purchased in October 2004. The group allegedly violated the Political Funds Control Law by cooking the books and deliberately omitting the specifics of the transaction in its political funds report, and the DPJ don was allegedly involved.
Ozawa's secretaries claim their boss' personal assets were used to make the purchase, but the loan went undocumented. In addition, the transactions for the land purchase were registered as having taken place in 2005 instead of 2004.
Also, although Rikuzankai repaid the loan to Ozawa in 2007, no records of the refund were registered.
How did Ozawa's indictment come about and what are the allegations?
The focus of Ozawa's indictment involves shady transactions with construction firms and secret money transfers. Ozawa claims no laws were breached in the dubious land purchase despite certain details being left out of the records.
Last February, prosecutors indicted three of Ozawa's former secretaries but gave up on building a case against the "shadow shogun" because they lacked solid evidence proving his involvement.
But suspicions that the ¥340 million came from construction firms with ties to projects throughout Ozawa's Iwate Prefecture electoral district lingered, and a group of citizens sought to challenge the prosecutorial decision to drop Ozawa's case at the Tokyo No. 5 Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution, which comprises 11 members randomly chosen from the electoral list.
In April, the committee decided there were sufficient grounds to indict Ozawa, but the prosecutors in May decided not to press charges, citing lack of evidence.
In October, the committee of 11 new members declared the prosecutors' investigations "insufficient," leading to Ozawa's mandatory indictment.
Ozawa's explanations concerning the ¥400 million he loaned to Rikuzankai have been dubious.
At first, the kingpin said the money came from a donation, then changed his story, describing it as a loan from a bank, before finally stating the money came from his personal assets.
In reaching its decision to indict Ozawa, the committee said in October it "strongly suspected" Ozawa's involvement in the affair.
What has Ozawa's reaction been so far?
Being slapped with an indictment will leave a big stain on Ozawa's political career, if not terminate it. But the DPJ kingpin has appeared unfazed, releasing a statement in October saying he is "confident of proving (his) innocence at trial" and even criticizing the panel's decision.
Ozawa went as far as to sue the government, claiming the committee's decision to indict is illegal and invalid, but his appeal was dismissed in court.
Ozawa's defense team is led by Junichiro Hironaka, a veteran attorney who has worked on many high-profile cases. His most recent clients include Atsuko Muraki, a health ministry official who was acquitted last year in a case involving the alleged use of a postal discount system for the disabled — an acquittal that also coincided with prosecutors facing flak for allegedly altering evidence to indicate his guilt.
Do the lawyers designated as prosecutors have a shot?
Analysts say Ozawa's confidence is rooted in the fact that prosecutors failed not once but twice to collect sufficient evidence to prove he masterminded the funds misreporting. It appears unlikely the three designated lawyers taking over as prosecutors will unearth new evidence, especially given the reluctance of Ozawa's side to cooperate.
By law, in a case where an individual faces mandatory indictment upon the decision of an inquest committee, outside lawyers serve as prosecutors.
If Ozawa were to be found guilty, the competence of actual prosecutors would also be called into question, as it would mean they twice dismissed a solid case and were upstaged by a committee of amateurs.
What are the factors that could affect the trial?
The trial of Ozawa's three former aides will begin Feb. 7 and hopefully shed light on their involvement in the falsification of the report by Ozawa's fund management group. Takanori Okubo, former chief of accounting at Rikuzankai, as well as two of his assistants, Tomohiro Ishikawa and Mitsumoto Ikeda, are expected to deny violating the Political Funds Control Law.
The former secretaries, arrested in January last year, allegedly played key roles in the shady Rikuzankai transfers.
How the prosecutors or the defendants portray Ozawa's involvement in the case could affect the outcome of the DPJ don's trial.
When will Ozawa's trial begin?
It remains unclear when the public will see Ozawa in the dock, as the pretrial meetings between his lawyers and the prosecution could last months. In the case of his aides, it has taken more than a year from the date of their indictment to the start of the trial this month.
During the process, both parties, before the judges, will decide what evidence will be entered and which witnesses they will call to testify. They will also decide on the length of the trial.
The case will be tried by professional judges, as cases involving violations of the Political Funds Control Law are not subject to a lay judge trial.