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Japanese lawmaker Anri Kawai found guilty of vote-buying in 2019 election

House of Councillors member Anri Kawai enters the Tokyo District Court for the first time since her release on bail, in this photo taken in the capital's Chiyoda Ward on Nov. 11, 2020. (Pool photo)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- House of Councillors member Anri Kawai was sentenced Thursday to a year and four months in prison, suspended for five years, for buying votes in the 2019 upper house election.

    The Tokyo District Court ruled that Kawai, 47, distributed money to local legislators in Hiroshima Prefecture, western Japan, in violation of the Public Offices Election Law. If the ruling is finalized, she will lose her status as a lawmaker.

    "It harmed the fairness of elections, which are the basis of democracy," said Presiding Judge Yasuaki Takahashi regarding the impact of the case on Japanese society.

    The court, however, found her not guilty on part of the charges. She had denied all the charges against her.

    "It is very regrettable that only part of my argument was accepted," Kawai said after the ruling, adding she will examine it and decide how to respond.

    The ruling and findings in her trial are expected to affect the case of her husband, Katsuyuki Kawai, a former justice minister who has been tried separately on vote-buying charges, as the court determined the couple has conspired to buy votes.

    Katsuyuki Kawai, a 57-year-old House of Representatives member, is accused of handing about 29 million yen ($280,500) to 100 individuals in total.

    According to the indictment, Anri Kawai conspired with her husband to violate the election law by handing out 1.7 million yen in total to five local assembly members in the prefecture between March and June in 2019.

    The court ruled Thursday she was guilty of bribing four of them.

    Prosecutors said the money was given as a reward for securing votes for her in the July 2019 election, and called for an 18-month prison term for her.

    The five local politicians -- four Hiroshima prefectural assembly members and one Etajima city assembly member -- admitted to receiving cash. Four of them testified they thought the Kawais were asking them to secure votes for Anri Kawaii in the election.

    They also said they thought that the offering and receiving of such money was illegal.

    Based on their testimony, the court decided it was reward money for obtaining votes.

    The evidence brought up by prosecutors included a payment list, which showed Katsuyuki Kawai organizing whether he or his wife would hand out the money, as well as who to pay, according to the trial.

    "It was obvious the couple were conspiring," prosecutors said.

    In the election, Anri Kawai, a former prefectural assembly member, won one of the two seats in the Hiroshima constituency by beating out a fellow Liberal Democratic Party candidate, the then-incumbent veteran Kensei Mizote.

    Mizote failed to win re-election due to the conservative vote being split, with another incumbent backed by opposition parties retaining the seat.

    The judge pointed out that Anri Kawai was aware it was going to be a difficult path because she did not receive support from the LDP's prefectural federation branch of Hiroshima, suggesting it served as a vote-buying motive.

    Tetsuro Fukuyama, secretary general of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, told reporters, "She should immediately step down as a lawmaker without appealing," insisting people in Japan, under financial stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will not tolerate her continuing to receive allowances.

    Prior to the election, the LDP headquarters gave an unusually large 150 million yen in total to Kawai's camp.

    Asked about the amount by reporters, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said after the ruling, "I received a report about it after I became the president (of the LDP). It was provided in accordance with the rules through the prescribed procedures of the party."

    The Kawais left the ruling LDP before their arrest in June 2020.

    Following the conviction of a state-paid secretary of Anri Kawai over illegal payments to election campaigners, prosecutors in Hiroshima filed a separate lawsuit seeking to nullify her election victory based on the application of guilt by association under the Public Offices Election Law.

    If prosecutors win the case, she will lose her lawmaker status regardless of the development of her criminal case.

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