Prosecutors must take committee’s decision on indictments seriously

The public was not convinced by prosecutors’ decision not to indict local politicians and others who received large sums of cash during an election. The prosecutors office must take seriously the judgment that called for strict punishment.

Regarding the vote-buying scandal involving the 2019 House of Councillors election, the Committee for Inquest of Prosecution has concluded that indictment was merited for 35 people, including Hiroshima prefectural assembly members, out of the 100 people who received cash from former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai, whose prison sentence without suspension has been finalized.

The Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office’s special investigation squad has concluded that the 100 individuals received cash ranging between ¥50,000 and ¥3 million, knowing that the money was meant to help Kawai’s wife, Anri, win the election. However, the prosecutors did not indict all 100 people, giving significant weight to the fact that they were in a passive position, such as being forced to take the cash.

The Public Offices Election Law has a provision that punishes people who take bribes. It is only natural that the committee criticized the prosecutors’ decision, saying, “Punishing one party and not punishing the recipients at all makes people forget the fact that accepting such money is a serious illegal act.”

The committee said indictments were warranted for such public figures as prefectural assembly members and a mayor who received large sums of cash, did not return the money immediately and stayed in their posts.

The committee did not say that 46 local politicians who resigned from their positions to take responsibility clearly deserved indictment, but judged that not indicting them was inappropriate and sought a reexamination of their cases.

Politicians must be well aware that election fraud distorts democratic politics. The committee must have judged as particularly heinous the assembly members and others who were not aware of the seriousness of their responsibilities. The local politicians who received the cash should decide for themselves whether to step down.

The prosecutors office is to reopen the case following the committee’s decision. From March, it will be three years since some of recipients took the money. The statute of limitations on prosecution may become an issue, so the investigation needs to be hastened.

Election fraud cases are not eligible for Japan’s version of plea bargaining. However, Kawai’s side argued during the trial that prosecutors did not indict the recipients so that they could obtain testimony that would benefit prosecutors. Prosecutors should not be suspected of backroom dealings with recipients.

Moreover, the prosecutors did not reveal in detail their reasons for not uniformly indicting the recipients.

There was a past case in which campaign workers who received several thousand yen faced summary indictments. If the prosecutors office, which has significant powers to indict people, deals with cases in an arbitrary manner, it will undermine people’s confidence in the criminal justice system as a whole.

Prosecutors need to proceed with reinvestigating the cases and review their decision not to indict all of the accused. This time, it is essential to provide the public with a detailed explanation of the results and their reasons.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Feb. 1, 2022.