Prosecutors’ decision not to indict Kawai bribe takers unfathomable

The latest decision by prosecutors could lead to a misunderstanding that it would be no problem to accept cash in relation to an election. It has also cast doubt on prosecutors’ fairness in criminal charges.

The special investigation squad of the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office has decided not to indict any of the 100 people who took bribes from former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, who has been charged with violating the Public Offices Election Law over the 2019 House of Councillors election. Prosecutors said they focused on the passive position that the bribe takers were placed in, such as having the cash forced upon them by the former minister.

The law stipulates that not only those who buy votes but also those who take bribes should be subject to punishment. In the past, campaign workers faced summary indictment for accepting ¥5,000 in cash. Considering that the 100 people in the vote-buying scandal received far larger amounts — from ¥50,000 to ¥3 million each — the latest decision lacks balance compared with the past punishments imposed in connection with election violations.

Prosecutors said that it is difficult to draw a line between who should be indicted or not, because how Kawai offered the cash differed depending on the person. Prosecutors did not provide details on why they decided not to indict even those who accepted hefty amounts of cash.

Of the 100 people in question, 40 were serving as local politicians in Hiroshima Prefecture at the time they accepted the cash. They received ¥100,000 to ¥2 million each, and a city assembly member reportedly spent the money on a trip to Guam.

Politicians should well understand that elections are the foundation of democracy. The wrongfulness of their acts is clear, so many members of the public probably find it hard to understand why prosecutors have decided not to indict them altogether.

Voters are still strongly critical of the scandal. In April, a candidate endorsed by the ruling coalition’s Liberal Democratic Party, to which Kawai used to belong, lost in the do-over of the upper house election for the Hiroshima Constituency.

Most of the 40 local politicians still have a public position. Although they have not been indicted, their wrongdoing has been recognized by prosecutors. They should take responsibility as politicians.

Kawai has appealed to a higher court after being sentenced to three years in prison by the Tokyo District Court. During hearings at the lower court, his defense argued that criminal charges had not been imposed on the people who took the bribes because prosecutors wanted to obtain testimony that they could use to their advantage. How investigations were conducted over this scandal could also become a point of contention during proceedings in the high court.

Election violations are not subject to the Japanese version of plea bargaining. If prosecutors don’t want people to suspect that they have made deals behind closed doors, they must give detailed explanations on why every single person does not have to be indicted.

Following the decision not to indict the 100 people, a citizens group said it plans to file a motion with the Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution.

In recent years, the committee has reversed prosecutors’ decisions not to indict suspects in many cases, such as one involving a former superintending prosecutor of the Tokyo High Public Prosecutors Office who gambled on mahjong, as well as the incident of election violations involving Isshu Sugawara, who once served as economy, trade and industry minister.

Prosecutors have almost sole authority to indict suspects, and arbitrary application of the power cannot be tolerated. It is essential for them to constantly question themselves whether their decisions related to criminal charges are valid.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on July 8, 2021.