What Happened to Prosecutors’ Principle of Strict Impartiality?

How far are they willing to go to prosecute in high-profile cases? Isn’t “strict impartiality” a principle that prosecutors uphold? The Supreme Public Prosecutors Office should rigorously investigate what happened and inform the public.

In a major vote-buying case involving former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai in connection to the 2019 House of Councillors election, it has been revealed that a prosecutor from the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office’s special investigation squad induced a then Hiroshima city assembly member to admit the charge of taking a bribe by hinting during voluntary questioning that he could escape indictment.

The assembly member initially denied he had been aware that ¥300,000 he received in cash from Kawai was a vote-buying bribe. However, the prosecutor reportedly told him during questioning, “I want you to continue as an assembly member,” and hinted that if he acknowledged taking the bribe, he might not be indicted, or he would be treated leniently.

If the assembly member had maintained his denial at that time, he might have been indicted and found guilty, possibly resulting in the loss of his assembly post. He later admitted to accepting the bribe apparently in anticipation that the charges would be dropped.

Under the Criminal Procedure Code, statements cannot be recognized as evidence in court unless they are made voluntarily. A confession obtained by offering someone a deal to escape prosecution raises doubts about the voluntariness of the testimony. It was an unfair investigation that prevented the truth of the case from being clarified. The actions of the prosecutor are unacceptable.

During questioning, the prosecutor also made a remark indicating that the aim of the investigation was to punish the former justice minister. It raises speculation that the special investigation squad was determined to charge Kawai and attempted to coerce a confession from the assembly member.

The special investigation squad indicted the former justice minister for allegedly paying a total of about ¥29 million to 100 people, such as Hiroshima prefectural and city assembly members, in a bid to get his wife elected in the upper house election, in violation of the Public Offices Election Law. However, prosecutors decided not to indict the people who had received the cash, sparking criticism that the decision was unfair.

When a Committee for the Inquest of Prosecution, which comprises citizens, concluded that 35 of the 100 people should be indicted, the special investigation squad overturned its initial decision and indicted them without arrest or issued summary indictments. Eight of them have said the prosecutors initially hinted that they might not be indicted, among other claims.

Audio recordings of exchanges between the aforementioned assembly member and prosecutor have now come to light. It is suspected that the prosecutor spoke to others about the possibility of escaping indictment.

The Supreme Public Prosecutors Office said it will look into the matter. Was the inducement to obtain confessions made at the sole discretion of the prosecutor in question? Are there any structural problems behind the prosecutor’s actions, such as an excessive focus on obtaining confessions? It is important to clarify these points.

A probe also must be carried out to examine how the inducement to obtain testimonies affected the establishment of Kawai’s guilt.

Evidence tampering involving the Osaka District Public Prosecutors Office was uncovered in 2010, shattering the credibility of prosecutors. In their pledge to make a fresh start, the prosecutors said they would not fall prey to self-righteousness. What happened?

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 22, 2023)