Prosecutors upset by let-off for politician

SHIN KANEMARU, the politician who took an illegal donation of more than pounds 2m and has been linked with organised crime gangs, returned to work yesterday, as Tokyo's public prosecutors were lambasted by their colleagues for letting him off the hook. Public prosecutors have traditionally been regarded with respect in Japan for their incorruptibility, but after their treatment of Mr Kanemaru their reputation is in tatters.

Last week, the Tokyo public prosecutors said Mr Kanemaru, who had admitted receiving the illegal donation from the scandal-ridden Sagawa trucking firm, had also used members of a yakuza or gangster syndicate to do political errands. The prosecutors summoned him for questioning - but when Mr Kanemaru refused to leave his house they dropped their demand, apparently under pressure from a senior member of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. On Monday they said he would be fined a mere pounds 950. There has been no suggestion that Mr Kanemaru will repay the pounds 2m donation.

'In the judicial world, there should never be special treatment for special people,' wrote Michio Sato, chief public prosecutor for Sapporo in northern Japan, in an article submitted to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. 'Even other prosecutors are having difficulty in understanding the decision,' said Masaomi Nakamura of the public prosecutor's office in Matsuyama in southern Japan.

Such outbursts by prosecutors against members of their own profession reflect the level of disgust felt privately by many Japanese at the high-handed way Mr Kanemaru brushed aside the legal process. It also bodes ill for the standing of the prosecutors themselves, who up to now had been seen to constitute one of the few institutions in Japan that was independent of the corrupt and otherwise unaccountable political system. Mr Sato said the public's trust in the legal system rested in the belief that all were treated equally; the basis of that trust 'should not be thrown away lightly'.

Public prosecutors occupy a more exalted position in Japan than in the West. They are responsible for investigating cases and deciding whether to press for prosecution. Once a case is sent to court, the accused is almost always found guilty. In general, the prosecutors' judgments are seen by most Japanese as being fair.

Politicians have tried to interfere with the prosecutors in the past. In 1968, after successfully exposing a political bribery scandal, some prosecutors in the Tokyo office were transferred to quiet provincial posts. But in 1976 they bounced back, and had the then prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka, arrested and indicted over the Lockheed bribery scandal.

Tokyo prosecutors also pursued the Recruit shares-for-favours scandal in 1988-89, which ended in the fall of another prime minister, Noboru Takeshita, along with most of his cabinet.

Critics have pointed out that the prosecutors are not always over-zealous in investigating political scandals, and that their work is ultimately controlled by the Minister of Justice. The Lockheed affair came to light during US Senate hearings even though it had long been rumoured in Japan. And in Recruit, only the politicians' personal secretaries were found guilty of taking the shares. However, in both cases the public felt some degree of justice had been done, and that the politicians had at least been pulled up short.

But in the latest case, Mr Kanemaru, the infamous political kingmaker, is seen to have floated above the legal system. By returning to work yesterday he is sending a strong signal that everything should return to normal. Kiichi Miyazawa, the Prime Minister, who is dependent on Mr Kanemaru for his political survival, said he had 'no comment' on Mr Kanemaru's return to political life.

Meanwhile, 20 independent local government councillors yesterday launched a suit against Mr Kanemaru. They are accusing him of tax evasion, claiming that the 500m yen donation he received from Sagawa should be regarded as personal income.