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90-year-old ex-bureaucrat given jail term over fatal Tokyo car crash

Kozo Iizuka is seen entering the Tokyo District Court in Chiyoda Ward on Sept. 2, 2021. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A 90-year-old former top bureaucrat was sentenced Thursday to five years in prison for negligence over a 2019 car accident in Tokyo in which a woman and her 3-year-old daughter were killed and nine others injured.

    The Tokyo District Court ruled that Kozo Iizuka, a former chief of the now-defunct Agency of Industrial Science and Technology under the Ministry of International Trade and Industry, was guilty of mistakenly pressing down on the gas pedal instead of the brake for around 10 seconds during the incident, accelerating the car to a speed of up to 96 kilometers per hour.

    Iizuka had pleaded not guilty, maintaining a mechanical issue with the car caused it to go out of control. The high-profile case has stirred debate about the increasing number of elderly drivers on Japanese roads and the dangers they may pose.

    "I hope you will acknowledge your responsibility and negligence, and sincerely apologize to the bereaved family," Presiding Judge Kenji Shimotsu said in handing down the ruling. The court did not recognize "any abnormalities with the car, or any circumstances that suggest a malfunction."

    Takuya Matsunaga, the 35-year-old husband and father of the victims, told reporters following the ruling that he felt "relieved" that Iizuka was not acquitted, saying, "It has given me the catalyst to move forward."

    Prosecutors had sought a seven-year prison term for Iizuka, saying no problems with the car were found in an inspection conducted after the accident, and that there was no evidence of him applying the brakes during the incident.

    The court deemed a five-year prison sentence was appropriate given Iizuka's ailing physical condition due to his age and the excessive social sanctions he had been subjected to, saying, "Although the negligence was malicious, it was not caused by driving under the influence of alcohol or other behavior."

    Prosecutors argued that Iizuka had continued to drive despite being aware of the decline in his cognitive abilities due to aging, but the court ruled that the evidence was not sufficient to prove it was the cause of him mistakenly pressing the wrong pedal.

    Attending his trial in a wheelchair, Iizuka told the court he may have Parkinson's disease, but he is expected to be imprisoned like other defendants if the ruling is finalized.

    However, if Iizuka appeals, it may take some time until that occurs.

    Hisashi Sonoda, a professor emeritus of criminal law at Konan University, said the court's objective evidence is indicative of solid fact finding, and that "the ruling is likely to be upheld even if appealed."

    According to the ruling, Iizuka ran a red light after mistaking the gas pedal for the brake, hitting and killing bicycle-riding Mana Matsunaga, 31, and her daughter Riko when his vehicle entered a crosswalk in Tokyo's Ikebukuro area on April 19, 2019.

    He also injured nine others, including his wife who was a passenger in the car.

    Iizuka, who was also injured in the accident and hospitalized, was indicted without arrest in February last year, triggering a public outcry and claims that he had been given preferential treatment due to his former government position.

    In 2019, a record 601,022 driver's licenses were voluntarily surrendered, of which 350,428, or 58.3 percent, belonged to those aged 75 or older, up 58,339 from the year before, according to police data.

    The number of fatal traffic accidents per 100,000 license holders aged 75 or older stood at 6.9 in 2019, more than double the figure of 3.1 for those aged under 75, National Police Agency data showed.

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