Audio Recordings Raise Doubts over Prosecutors’ Methods in Vote-buying Case Investigation

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A public prosecutor is suspected of offering a deal to a municipal assembly member in exchange for leniency in a high-profile vote-buying case, according to audio recordings obtained by The Yomiuri Shimbun.

In the recordings, a prosecutor from the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office’s special investigation squad appeared to suggest to a then Hiroshima city assembly member during voluntary questioning that charges of accepting money from former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai would be dropped if the member acknowledged that the money was a bribe.

In 2021, Kawai was sentenced to three years in prison over vote buying in connection with his wife’s campaign in the 2019 House of Councillors election.

About ¥29 million was allegedly paid to about 100 local politicians and people in a Hiroshima constituency. Kawai was indicted on charges of violating the Public Offices Election Law, and his wife Anri also was found guilty.

The Hiroshima city assembly member was questioned over money received from Kawai.

Eight of the 11 politicians tried for violating the same law claimed in court that prosecutors had told them to acknowledge they had been bribed, and had suggested that they might not be indicted.

The Supreme Public Prosecutors Office is aware of the details revealed in the audio recordings and plans to investigate the matter.

The Tokyo prosecutors office questioned politicians on suspicion of receiving money Kawai had distributed in a bid to secure support to help his wife get elected.

The assembly member underwent voluntary questioning nine times between March and June 2020. The Yomiuri Shimbun obtained recordings covering more than six hours of those sessions.

According to sources, the prosecutor mentioned that the assembly member had received ¥300,000 in cash from Kawai in April 2019, when the assembly member was running as a candidate in the city assembly election. However, the assembly member denied this. “I did receive something, but I was not aware that it was money or that it was a bribe,” the assembly member reportedly told the prosecutor.

According to the audio recordings, the prosecutor said, “You should punish [Kawai],” and explained that not being aware would be interpreted as a denial. The prosecutor also added that he wanted the assembly member to retain his position in the assembly if possible and that he did not want the member to hold a position of denial.

The prosecutor appears to have been hinting that the charges would be dropped if the member accepted the narrative being put forward by the prosecutors, given that the assembly member would face disqualification if charged and found guilty of accepting a bribe.

During questioning on April 27, 2020, the assembly member signed a written statement acknowledging the money had been a bribe.

The member subsequently again denied recognition that the money had been a bribe, but the prosecutor did not correct the written statement. “Demonstrate that you fully acknowledge what happened and are reflecting deeply on this, and you won’t get charged or you’ll get as light a punishment as possible,” the prosecutor said.

The special investigation squad arrested Kawai, 60, and his wife, 49, on June 18 that year.

In July 2021, the prosecutors decided not to charge the assembly member. However, in January 2022, a prosecution inquest committee decided the case was suitable for prosecution, and a summary indictment was filed in March of that year. When the committee handed down that decision, the assembly member resigned and declared that he wanted to focus his attention on the judgment of voters. He objected to the summary order to pay a fine and requested a formal trial. That case has yet to begin.

The assembly member’s lawyer told The Yomiuri Shimbun, “My client will plead innocent in the trial and demand the prosecution be dismissed.”

The Criminal Procedure Code stipulates that a confession “may not be admitted as evidence” when there is doubt over whether it was given voluntarily.

“The comments made by the prosecutor were an inducement to gain an advantage, pure and simple,” lawyer Yasushi Handa, a former chief judge of the Fukuoka High Court, said to The Yomiuri Shimbun. “This was an unfair interrogation that raises doubts about the voluntary nature of the answers.”

When asked for an interview Thursday evening, a senior official of the prosecutors office said, “We can’t comment on individual cases.”

Prosecutors initially decided not to indict any of the people suspected of receiving cash. However, a prosecution inquest committee decided to reverse that decision for 35 people.

Audio and video recordings are not mandatory during voluntary questioning with prosecutors. The Yomiuri asked specialists to verify the acquired audio recordings. The results confirmed the person being questioned was the assembly member.