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Wednesday, Sep. 28, 2011
Aides' convictions bode ill for Ozawa
Critics see factor of reasonable doubt not playing key role in trial based on circumstantial evidence
By SETSUKO KAMIYA and NATSUKO FUKUE
The convictions Monday of Democratic Party of Japan ex-leader Ichiro Ozawa's former aides for making false entries in his political funds records will inevitably impact the kingpin's own trial that starts next month and weaken his clout in the ruling party, legal and political observers said Tuesday.
Legal experts interviewed by The Japan Times meanwhile criticized the verdicts because they believe the circumstantial evidence they were based on was not enough to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that at least one of the defendants, Takanori Okubo — Ozawa's former senior secretary, whose alleged involvement was based only on botched interrogation records — had conspired with the other defendants to cook the books.
Ozawa will be in trouble if the court, faced with a similar lack of evidence, follows the same logic as occurred Monday, they said.
Lower House lawmaker Tomohiro Ishikawa, who was sentenced to a suspended two-year prison term Monday, filed an appeal Tuesday, as did the other ex-aides.
"It was a complete victory for the prosecutors. The court basically acknowledged most of the prosecution's arguments," said lawyer Yoji Ochiai, a professor at Tokai University Law School and a former prosecutor. He was critical of what he termed the overemphasis by the prosecutors on motives behind the alleged false entries instead of dealing with facts to back up the charges.
The case involved an entry of ¥400 million that Ozawa's political funds body, Rikuzankai, had borrowed from the DPJ don in October 2004 to buy a plot of land in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo.
The focus of the case was whether the three former secretaries — Ishikawa, 38, Okubo, 50, and Mitsutomo Ikeda, 34 — knowingly cooked the books and whether they conspired to do so.
The three owned up to the false entries when they were interrogated but pleaded not guilty when the trial began in February. Okubo said he was neither involved in drafting nor submitting the records, while Ishikawa and Ikeda argued that they had not made any wrongful entries.
When the audiotapes secretly recorded by Ishikawa during a voluntary interrogation revealed that prosecutors had used threats and guided his replies with loaded questions, the court in June rejected several statements as evidence, including those the prosecutors had used to base their argument that Okubo was involved in conspiring with the others.
The court ruled, however, that Ishikawa deliberately falsified the records to avoid making the transaction public, adding it was reasonable to believe that Okubo, who was his senior, was aware of this.
The court applied a similar argument against Ikeda, who succeeded Ishikawa in keeping the records.
"I strongly question the way the court went with the prosecutors' story even though there was room for doubt," Ochiai said. "This is like saying 'don't give the defendant the benefit of the doubt.' "
Ozawa's trial, which starts Oct. 6, will focus on whether the former DPJ leader conspired with the three former secretaries to cook the books. Ozawa, who was indicted in January, has denied any wrongdoing.
Lawyer Yukio Yamashita said the guilty verdicts handed to the former secretaries may work against Ozawa, even though different judges will try his case.
Ozawa faced mandatory indictment by court-appointed lawyers based on two separate votes by prosecutorial inquest committees. Monday's ruling will also serve as a tailwind for the same lawyers when they serve as prosecutors in his trial, Yamashita said.
Political critics said Monday's ruling was already enough to weaken Ozawa's influence within the DPJ even before the outcome of his trial.
"He won't be appointed to an executive post, and he will lose his loyalists," said political analyst Hirotada Asakawa.
Ozawa heads the DPJ's largest faction, with some 120 members. But in February, DPJ executives under the leadership of then Prime Minister Naoto Kan suspended Ozawa's party membership after his indictment. This deepened the internal conflicts between Ozawa's followers and his foes.
Aiming to reunite the party, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda appointed Ozawa allies, including Kenji Yamaoka and Azuma Koshiishi, as ministers and party executives.
On Tuesday at the Diet, Noda took a cautious stance on summoning Ozawa to give sworn testimony over the scandal — a demand pressed by the opposition.
Noda told the Lower House Budget Committee that "due consideration" is needed because summoning Ozawa to testify could possibly affect the course of his coming trial.
DPJ Secretary General Koshiishi has been calling for Ozawa's party membership to be reinstated, but Asakawa observed that "executives won't be able to do so until his trial is over in April" now that his three former secretaries have been convicted.
Ozawa was believed to be planning to run in the next DPJ presidential election next September, but that "scenario is now difficult to realize," given the situation, Asakawa said, adding the power broker's faction will begin to splinter because their leader, lacking party executive status, will not be able to tap the DPJ's funds.
After Monday's verdicts, Ishikawa, who said he will continue serving as a Lower House lawmaker, voiced concern about his former boss.
"A trial really weighs heavily mentally, so I want him to take care of his health and fight," he said. "The time will come when the doubt will be cleared. So I want him to persevere."