Japan passes sweeping ‘counter-terrorism’ law against planning of crimes

(Credit: Dick Thomas Johnson / Flickr)

Despite widespread opposition, Japan has passed a controversial counter-terrorism law that targets the planning stages of crimes.

After a series of delays due to opposition and other concerns, Japanese lawmakers have voted to pass what they’re calling an “anti-conspiracy” law. According to media reports, an estimated 5,000 people protested outside Japan’s upper house of parliament during the deliberations prior to passage of the bill, calling the legislation “autocratic” and vowing to keep fighting against Japan becoming a “surveillance society.”

And you thought the Philip K. Dick book and movie Minority Report about a futuristic law enforcement agency of thought police was just science fiction!

While some may find such laws necessary given the threat of terrorism, many see it as endangering fundamental civil rights. The U.N. has warned that such legislation could be used to suppress civil liberties, particularly of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that may fall under the vague or broad definition of “organized criminal groups.”

Critics have condemned the bill as reminiscent of Japan’s “thought police” before and during World War II, which cracked down on political opposition.

Under the new law, prosecutors can monitor and arrest individuals for planning any of 277 defined “serious crimes.” The charges apply to “organized criminal groups” of two or more people, in which at least one person has arranged funding, scoped out a location or carried out other actions in preparation to commit a crime. Maintaining or expanding an organized criminal group is also punishable under the law.

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Critics say the list of crimes includes violations that have no obvious connection to terrorism or organized crime, such as forging stamps, copying music, competing in a motor boat race without a license or participating in a sit-in to protest the construction of apartment buildings.

“The conspiracy bill goes against the basic principles of our country’s criminal code and the legal system,” Motoji Kobayashi, president of the Tokyo Bar Association, said in January according to Japan Times. “It threatens the function of protecting human rights.”

Last month, U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy Joseph Cannataci also released an open letter to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe warning that broad scope of the bill might “lead to undue restrictions to the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression.”

For example, in order to establish the existence of prosecutable “preparatory actions,” the state would have to engage in a considerable amount of surveillance beforehand.

“This expectation of intensified surveillance calls into question the safeguards and remedies existing in Japanese law with regard to privacy and surveillance,” he wrote.

He also noted that the definition of “organized criminal group” is too vague, creating the opportunity to legitimize the surveillance – or more – of NGOs considered to be working against national interest. He asked that Abe provide information that the bill is compatible with international human rights norms and standards.

Abe’s administration balked at Cannataci’s concerns. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that the contents of the letter were “clearly inappropriate, and we strongly protested,” according to Reuters. “It is not at all the case that the legislation would be implemented arbitrarily so as to inappropriately restrict the right to privacy and freedom of speech.”

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Japanese officials insist the law is necessary to ratify the 2000 U.N. Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) treaty, especially as Tokyo prepares to host the rugby world cup in 2019 and the Olympics in 2020.

“Although Japan signed the convention, domestic laws do not fulfill the obligations of the treaty, impeding Japan from concluding it. After recent terrorist attacks in Britain, Sweden and Belgium, last week in Sicily the G-7 leaders called for more cooperation to implement international agreements, including UNTOC,” Norio Maruyama, press secretary for the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, wrote on June 1 in a letter to the editor of the New York Times.

Maruyama added that “few other countries limit the scope of the law as strictly as Japan does.”

To speed up passage of the law, the ruling bloc skipped the usual vote in the upper house committee and went straight to a vote in the full upper house.

“There is absolutely no justification for the Japanese Government to behave in this way and push through seriously defective legislation in such a rush,” Cannataci wrote in an email to Reuters.

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.