Japan's Plans to Penalize Uncommitted Crimes

Japan's Plans to Penalize Uncommitted Crimes
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The potential law amendment will widen government surveillance of its citizens and is being questioned for intruding people’s privacy.

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An amendment to the law against organized crimes, finally submitted to the Diet this week by the Abe administration, deviates from the principle of the nation’s criminal law system to penalize people for the crimes they have committed. If enacted, the amendment will punish groups of two or more people for plotting and preparing for nearly 300 types of crimes without actually carrying them out. The government says the measure is essential for Japan to beef up its efforts to thwart terrorism. Opponents point out that existing exceptions to the principle — legal provisions to penalize the act of plotting and preparing to commit roughly 70 types of serious offenses — should serve the purpose instead of introducing a new blanket legislative measure. The government says that won’t be enough, without specifically and convincingly explaining why.

What seems likely is that investigative authorities will seek to widen their dragnet of surveillance over society to crack down on crimes in their planning stages, possibly intruding more into the sphere of people’s privacy. Police tools for such investigations have been widened over the years, including the expanded use of wiretapping in criminal probes. The Japan Federation of Bar Associations warns that the proposed legislation will prompt calls for the introduction of more such tools, including the installation of bugging devices to eavesdrop on conversations involving targets of investigation. In proposing the legislation to the Diet for deliberations, the government needs to address such concerns.

The administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has instead been busy emphasizing that the legislation is different from the government’s past aborted bills to make it a crime for people to conspire to commit a broad range of offenses. The conspiracy crime bills submitted three times in the mid-2000s were scrapped each time in the Diet as they incurred strong criticism that penalizing the acts of plotting for crimes could violate people’s freedom of inner thoughts.

The proposed legislation, it says, will penalize people for making preparations to commit a crime, instead of merely plotting it. While the broad reference to “groups” as the target in the previous bills led to criticism that civic groups and labor unions could be targeted, the legislation purports to target “organized crime groups” — although the government admits that a group formed by ordinary people could become the target of investigation under the law if their purpose has changed to criminal activities. The number of targeted types of crimes has been reduced from over 600 in previous bills to about 280.

The government says the new legislation is crucial for Japan to join the 2000 United Nations convention against cross-border organized crimes — the same explanation that it used in calling for enactment of past conspiracy crime bills, from which the administration now seems to be distancing itself. The Abe administration has also recast the legislation as an anti-terrorism measure — Abe even said Japan can’t host the 2020 Summer Olympics without enacting the legislation. Still, the original government draft of the legislation proposed to ruling coalition parties had no mention of “terrorism” as its target — an apparent contradiction with the government’s explanation. The draft was later reworded to refer to “terrorist groups and other organized crime groups” as the targets.

The administration has repeatedly said that “ordinary people” would not be targeted by the legislation since the requirements for establishing criminal cases are much tighter than those in previous bills. However, concerns linger that the decision of who to target will be ultimately left up to the discretion of investigative authorities. For example, the “organized crime group” in the legislation is defined as “organization created for the purpose of committing grave crimes” — and the government cites terrorist groups, crime syndicates and drug smugglers as examples — but the lack of provisions in the text requiring such organizations to be habitually or repetitively engaged in criminal activities raises questions whether civic groups can be targeted as well. The definition of what acts will constitute “preparation” for crimes to be penalized is also said to be left vague, while the government refers to the procurement of necessary funds and weapons, as well as surveying the scenes of planned crimes in advance, as examples.

The government has yet to give convincing explanations to address these and other questions and concerns over the legislation. That opposition to the legislation outnumbered support in a recent Kyodo News poll is one indication that the administration has not convinced the public of its necessity. It should engage in sincere efforts to do so in upcoming Diet deliberations.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

Editor: Olivia Yang