Senior diplomat jailed for £2.6m racehorse swindle

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Japan's foreign ministry faced new humiliation yesterday when a senior diplomat was sent to prison for using millions of pounds of government funds to buy racehorses.

Katsutoshi Matsuo, who was sacked from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before his arrest last year, was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison after being found guilty of embezzling 500 million yen (£2.6m) from a secret fund intended to pay for foreign trips by the Japanese prime minister.

The 56-year-old diplomat, who was responsible for organising the overseas trips, also bought yachts, a luxury home in Tokyo and gifts for a number of mistresses with the government money.

The presiding judge, Hiromichi Inoue, said: "The defendant obtained taxpayers' money worth more than 500 million yen by abusing his position, knowledge and experiences, only to satisfy his personal desire ... The defendant deserves harsh criticism for betraying the public's faith in public servants."

The scandal was the first in a series of ongoing embarrassments for the Foreign Ministry, which was once regarded as one of the least corruptible bureaucracies in Japan.

Yesterday, parliamentary pressure mounted for the resignation of a senior politician alleged to have bullied diplomats about the spending of Japan's vast overseas development budget. Muneo Suzuki, of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, is accused of interfering with the award of a construction project on two Russian islands off Japan.

According to a Foreign Ministry report, he insisted that it should be awarded to construction firms within his own constituency. He is said to have made similar demands about an aid project in Kenya, and attention is also focusing on his secretary, a Congolese man who, it has been revealed, entered Japan on a fake passport.

On Monday, Mr Suzuki answered questions in the Japanese parliament, in an evasive performance which did little to deflect his accusers.

In January, the Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi, sacked his popular female Foreign Minister, Makiko Tanaka, because of a feud between her and Mr Suzuki. Now opposition parties and many in the LDP believe that he should go.