While Paris Hilton reminded the world this week of Japan’s harsh stance on drugs, the nation itself was more concerned about the arrest of one of its top prosecutors in a case that has shaken public confidence in the criminal justice system.
Tsunehiko Maeda, an investigative ‘ace’ at the Osaka public prosecutors office, is suspected of tampering with potentially key evidence in a complicated case involving a postage discount scam. It appears that Maeda changed an inconvenient date on a file that contradicted the prosecution’s case against a ministry official.
This comes at a time when a string of cases over recent years has shown admissions of guilt obtained by Japanese police to be false, casting doubt on police interrogation and investigative methods nationwide. The incidents have ignited calls for such questionings to be recorded on video. A prosecutor now being accused of fixing evidence will go even further in eroding public faith in criminal justice in Japan.
And Maeda is not just a rank-and-file prosecutor. He’s a member of Osaka’s special investigation squad and is seen as one of the nation’s best in his field. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, he has been involved in high profile cases such as the investigation into the funding scandal surrounding political heavyweight Ichiro Ozawa and the fraud case involving Japan’s most famous music producer, Tetsuya Komuro.
Japan has a famously high conviction rate in criminal cases said to be close to 99 percent, a figure that seems almost too good to be true. While public prosecutors must no doubt pick the cases they take up very carefully, the suspicion is that there is an overreliance on admissions of guilt obtained after lengthy detention and questioning. The problem lies in the overused practice of extending detention or re-arresting suspects on slightly incremented charges, which can give those being held the impression that they’re never going to leave detention until they give in.
Putting political considerations aside for the moment, the case of the Chinese fishing boat skipper is a very public example of how extending detention is seen as the accepted norm in Japan.
This postage scam case now brings to light the shocking possibility that even in big cases such as this, when the prosecution does not have a confession to prop up its case it might seek to fix the evidence to fit its arguments.
In its editorial on Wednesday the Yomiuri said the case made ‘a mockery of the justice of criminal trials’ and had shaken ‘the very foundations of Japan’s criminal justice system,’ while another of the big dailies, the Asahi Shimbun, suggested that the idea of prosecutors altering evidence ‘reminds us of how the prewar “thought police” used to round up dissidents.’
These strong words give us an indication of the shock this case has generated so far.