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Editorial: Ruling parties heavy-handed in deliberations on 'anti-conspiracy' bill

The House of Representatives Judicial Affairs Committee has launched substantive deliberations on a controversial bill to criminalize "preparations to commit crimes such as terrorism" by changing the conditions that constitute conspiracy.

At the outset of the session, ruling Liberal Democratic Party member Junji Suzuki, the chairman of the panel, exercised his authority to put to a vote a motion to summon the director-general of the Justice Ministry's Criminal Affairs Bureau to the Diet as a witness representing the government despite stiff opposition from opposition parties. The motion was approved by the ruling coalition.

The government bloc apparently intends to have the high-ranking bureaucrat answer questions about the bill to revise the Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds on behalf of Justice Minister Katsutoshi Kaneda, whose explanations on the bill have been inconsistent. The move is indicative of the committee's extremely rough steering

Kaneda is the Cabinet minister responsible for submitting the bill to the Diet. If the ruling coalition is concerned about Kaneda's explanations on the bill, isn't it because there are problems with the bill itself?

Bureaucrats are barred from attending Diet panel deliberations, in principle, under a 1999 law aimed at ensuring that the leading role in Diet deliberations is played by politicians. The government witness system was then introduced to allow bureaucrats to assist Cabinet ministers in explaining the technical matters of government policies during Diet deliberations.

Such a system is acceptable in order to ensure the Diet holds in-depth deliberations on policy issues. However, it had been a customary practice for Diet panels to unanimously approve the summoning of bureaucrats as witnesses representing the executive branch. The latest turn of events is said to represent the first time that a lower house panel has adopted such a motion without the consent of opposition parties. The abnormal move constitutes a violation of established custom.

The proposed bill would penalize acts involving at least two people planning, agreeing on and preparing to commit crimes. It would apply to organized crime groups, but concerns have been raised that ordinary citizens could be subject to the proposed legislation. Since the bill would punish those who agree to commit crimes even before carrying them out, critics have voiced concerns that the bill might open the path to a surveillance society.

In February, Justice Minister Kaneda sent a document to news organizations as if to suppress questions about the legislation, saying, "The issue should be discussed after the bill is submitted to the Diet." He retracted the statement the following day.

Kaneda was subsequently grilled by opposition parties over his unclear statements on the proposed legislation. A bureaucrat assisting the justice minister continues to whisper in his ear during panel deliberations on the bill.

When asked during deliberations about how organizations targeted under the latest bill would be different from those subject to conspiracy charges in similar bills in the past, Kaneda simply repeated a statement made earlier in the session by the head of the Criminal Affairs Bureau.

Kaneda justified his practice, saying, "There's no problem of bureaucrats commenting on technical matters" of the bill. However, the majority of questions raised during deliberations over the bill concern its key elements. Accordingly, there is no excuse for failing to give clear-cut replies to questions about the proposed legislation.

If the justice minister fails to explain the bill with confidence, it will damage the public's confidence in the bill itself.

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