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Concerns remain over 'anti-conspiracy bill' as gov't prepares to submit new version to Diet

The government is aiming to submit an anti-terrorism bill this Diet session, a more targeted version of "anti-conspiracy bills" that have been rejected three times in the past, but Feb. 2 saw another day of direct opposition from the Democratic Party and others during Diet deliberations, as concerns remain about investigators extending the powers that would be granted under the bill.

Proponents of the bill, which would revise the Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds, argue it will allow Japan to join the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. At deliberations in the House of Representatives budget committee on Feb. 2, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, "If we don't join the convention, we will be unable to join the international, terrorism-prevention community." He painted the new bill as different from past ones, saying, "We have made the crimes defined in this bill into something different than the conspiracy aspects spelled out in the bills until now."

Both the past conspiracy bills and the current anti-terrorism bill share the same objectives: allowing Japan to join the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. A big reason for the government to push for the bill currently is the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 3 1/2 years. In recent years, not only has the extremist group Islamic State named Japan as a terrorism target, there have been a number of incidents and terrorist attacks overseas in which Japanese nationals have died. A government insider says, "With Japan gathering more international attention due to the Tokyo Olympics, there is no guarantee a terrorist attack will not happen."

In fact, before the Rio Olympics last summer, Brazilian authorities arrested over 10 Brazilian nationals on suspicion of planning terrorism, stopping potential crimes before they happened. A high-ranking official of the Japanese Ministry of Justice says, "Having the charges of terrorism preparation available for prosecuting doesn't mean we will have perfect counterterrorism measures in place. But if we don't sign the U.N. convention Japan could be a missing link in international cooperation against terrorism, and we won't be able to obtain terrorism related information (from nations in that convention)."

Past anti-conspiracy bills were met with strong concern that they could be applied to something like employees talking about wanting to beat up their boss. To counter these concerns, for the anti-terrorism bill the government has limited the scope to "organized crime groups," and in order for punishment to be applied it requires "preparatory actions" such as arranging money to buy a weapon.

The U.N. convention applies to crimes that are punishable by four or more years in confinement. Under Japanese law this would apply to 676 types of crimes. Groups such as Komeito have expressed concern that too many crimes would be subject to the new law if it followed the standard of the convention, so the government is limiting the crimes covered by the bill to terrorism-related and organized crime-related ones, keeping the number down to somewhat below 300. There are 167 terrorism-related crimes, including ones such as arson to inhabited structures and activities endangering airplanes. Together with this it plans to alter a government viewpoint adopted in a 2005 Cabinet decision that the government "cannot choose between crimes based on their content" in adopting an anti-conspiracy law.

Prime Minister Abe has repeatedly said, "It is a complete mistake to call (what the new bill addresses) charges of conspiracy," in an effort to erase the negative image left from the anti-conspiracy bills.

However, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations is strongly opposing the new bill, saying, "New legislation is not necessary to join the convention." It argues that there are already criminal definitions for things like conspiracy and criminal preparation in an explosives control act and for some major crimes like murder, and this is enough to join the convention. In response, the government insider says, "Currently there are no rules that let us punish things like human trafficking or fraud before they occur, so we cannot join the convention. It is commonly known that terrorist organizations engage in economic crimes to secure their operating funds."

Professor of criminal law Hirofumi Uchida at Kobe Gakuin University argues that the definition of things like an "organized crime group" is unclear. "Investigative authorities could interpret (criminal) preparatory activities very widely," he says, adding, "What is an organized crime group? This definition should be made clearer."

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