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Editorial: Removal of Japan PM's hecklers casts doubt on political neutrality of police

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe gave a speech on July 15 for a candidate running in the House of Councillors election, Hokkaido Prefectural Police officers forcibly removed two vocal hecklers, grabbing them and tugging at their clothes.

One was a young man, who repeatedly shouted, "Resign, Abe!" from a distance of several dozen meters from the prime minister. He was surrounded by multiple police officers and led away from Abe.

Similarly, when a woman yelled, "No tax raise!" several plainclothes police officers flocked to her and reportedly led her to a different location.

Prefectural police said they had asked the two protesters to move to different locations out of concern that their actions would cause conflict between them and those in the crowd who were listening to Abe's speech. But, they explained, because the two failed to comply, officers took part in normal police activity.

But just what basis did the police have to forcibly remove the protesters?

Under the Public Offices Election Act, "interference of speeches" is listed as one form of obstruction of the freedom of election campaigns. The Japanese Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that heckling that makes it impossible or difficult for crowds to hear a speech amounts to campaign obstruction. Cases in which sound trucks are used are considered a typical form of campaign obstruction. Sporadic heckling, like in the latest case, would not count as a form of campaign obstruction.

It is therefore extremely inappropriate that the police high-handedly took away the protesters' freedom, albeit temporarily. If such a thing were allowed to repeat itself, voters who gathered to hear campaign speeches would become unable to raise their voices.

The incident in Hokkaido brings to mind an incident that took place two years ago on the last day of campaigning for the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly race in the capital's Akihabara district, when Prime Minister Abe was stumping for a Liberal Democratic Party-backed candidate. When a crowd of people raised their voices against Abe, he said, "We cannot lose to people like this."

Some point out that the prime minister does not lend an ear to criticism toward him. It has become tradition for the prime minister to finish off the election campaign period in Akihabara, but it has also become customary for people to be roped off so that those who may be critical of Abe can get nowhere near him.

If the latest incident in Hokkaido was a case of the prefectural police speculating what the Abe administration would like to have done and the police carrying it out without being told to do so, then the political neutrality of the police must be called into question.

The importance of security provided by police in public spaces goes without saying. This is true in spaces where political activities are being carried out. However, if police act with a heavy hand, it will have a chilling effect on citizens. In order to avoid such a state of affairs, police should show restraint in their responses.

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