TOKYO • Japan's Cabinet has approved legislation that would penalise criminal conspiracies, a move critics say threatens civil liberties but which officials say is needed to prevent terrorists targeting events such as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Proponents say the steps are vital in a security climate where terrorism risks have grown and in order to ratify a United Nations treaty aimed at battling international organised crime.
"Considering the current situation regarding terrorism and looking ahead to the Olympics and Paralympics three years hence, it is necessary to fully prepare to prevent organised crimes, including terrorism," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference yesterday.
Japanese governments have tried to pass similar legislation three times since 2000, when the UN adopted the Convention against Transnational Organised Crime.
The Bill stands a better chance of success this time.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's ruling coalition has a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament and public worries about terrorism ahead of the Olympics have grown after deadly attacks overseas.
However, an opinion poll released by Kyodo News on March 12 showed 45.5 per cent were opposed to the Bill while 33 per cent favoured it.
Mr Suga said the legislation would apply only to groups preparing to commit terrorist acts and other organised crime groups and would not target the "legitimate activities" of civil groups or labour unions.
Opponents, including the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, have doubts. They view the proposed change as part of Mr Abe's agenda to tighten control at the expense of individual rights, chilling grassroots opposition to government policies such as the construction of a United States military base on Okinawa Island.
"It is very clear that the Japanese public security sector - police and prosecutors - employ an extremely expansive interpretation of any aspect of criminal law so... regardless of the limited list of potential crimes, they will interpret it in an extremely elastic way," said Professor Lawrence Repeta, a legal expert at Meiji University in Tokyo.
The lawyers' association has said Japanese law already prohibits preparations to commit certain serious crimes such as murder, arson and counterfeiting, or plotting an insurgency or the use of explosives, so additional legislation is unnecessary.
A "serious crime'', defined by the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, is any offence punishable by a minimum four-year prison sentence and calls on nations that sign it to pass laws that would allow for separately punishing individuals who conspire to commit a serious crime.
More than 600 crimes in Japan would be covered by that proviso, the Asahi Shimbun has reported.
For the draft Bill against criminal conspiracies, the government has whittled that down to 277 activities in five broad categories that it considers susceptible to involvement by organised crime groups, the report said. The categories are: terrorism, drug trafficking, human trafficking, fraud and obstruction of justice.
The legislation would apply to cases in which two or more people plan to commit a crime, procure the funds and equipment to carry it out and stake out the targets to achieve their goal, Asahi said.