TOKYO (Kyodo) — A Japanese law penalizing the planning of a range of crimes took effect Tuesday, with the government insisting that it will help thwart terrorism even as concerns linger among the public that enhanced police power could lead to suppression of civil liberties.
Under the law, which the ruling parties rammed through the Diet last month, terrorist groups or other criminal organizations will be punished for planning and preparing to commit 277 crimes. It brings a major change to Japan’s criminal law system that had basically applied penalties only after crimes had actually been committed.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government has framed the law as an essential tool for tackling terrorism in the run-up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and necessary to ratify a U.N. treaty on international organized crime. Japan is the only country among the Group of Seven countries that has yet to ratify the convention despite signing it in 2000.
But opponents including legal experts have warned that the definition of terrorist groups and other organized criminal groups is vague, leaving room for anyone to be punished. They also criticized that the law’s application on offenses included those that seem to be unrelated to organized crimes, such as forestry product theft.
The government has denied arbitrary punishment by investigative authorities, saying that what constitutes a crime is specified under the law and is also checked by courts.
The bill deliberated at the Diet was more commonly known as the “conspiracy bill” in a reference to three similarly worded bills that had sought to introduce a conspiracy charge.
None of those bills made it through the Diet in the face of strong criticism, and the Abe government made the latest challenge by renaming the charge to “preparatory crime of terrorism and others” and narrowing the scope of application than the previous bills.
But the government has continued to face difficulty in winning broad public support on the bill to revise a law on organized crime amid lingering concerns it could lead to increased wiretapping and other surveillance for investigations.
Toward the end of the Diet deliberation, the bill faced questions even from outside the country, with a U.N. special rapporteur on the right to privacy saying it could lead to undue restrictions on privacy and freedom of expression due to its potentially broad application.
Criticism from the public also mounted as the ruling coalition of the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito party took an unorthodox step of bypassing an upper house committee vote to push the bill through. The bill passed the Diet on June 15 following a vote in a plenary session of the House of Councillors.
Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda, whose explanations on the bill had often stirred controversy at the parliament, said in a recent interview he sought to work hard to win public support on the issue.
He also said the law will “not be applied to civic groups and labor unions that are engaging in legitimate activities” and that he finds no need to allow police to use wiretapping for investigation over the planning of serious crimes.
According to the law, two or more people who plan, as part of activities of terrorist groups or other organized criminal groups, serious crimes will be all punished if any of them take preparatory acts, such as preliminary inspections of relevant locations.
The 277 crimes include those directly related to terrorism, such as arson, as well as those on the use of drugs, human trafficking and fraud.