Indictment draws near for Abe assassination suspect

The Japan Times/January 5, 2023

By Tomoko Otake

Six months after former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was shot and killed in broad daylight, an indictment looms for the man suspected of being behind the attack.

On July 8, Tetsuya Yamagami allegedly approached Abe from behind during a stump speech in the city of Nara and shot him with a handmade gun. Yamagami, who was arrested on the spot, has reportedly admitted to the shooting, telling investigators that he had held a grudge against Abe over his links to the Unification Church, which is known for its mass weddings and aggressive donation collection practices.

Yamagami is currently in detention and undergoing psychiatric evaluation. Since the detention period for psychiatric evaluation is set to expire Tuesday, an indictment is expected to follow soon after that.

Here’s what you need to know about the criminal procedures for Yamagami and what will happen to him next.

Where is Yamagami now and what is his situation?

Yamagami is being held at the Osaka Detention Center, to which he was moved from a police station in Nara in late July. He is undergoing psychiatric evaluation, the results of which will be used by prosecutors to determine whether he is fit to stand trial.

Such evaluations are conducted by psychiatrists or psychology experts and are necessary for prosecutors to establish the criminal responsibility of suspects. The Penal Code stipulates that those who are determined to be “mentally incompetent” will be deemed innocent of the crimes committed.

Those who have “diminished mental capacity” can be found guilty, but their punishment would be reduced. Prosecutors weigh the results of the experts’ evaluation report to decide whether to indict the suspect, according to information provided by the National Center of Neurology and Psychiatry.

The evaluation involves interviews with the suspect and their relatives about their upbringing and circumstances leading up to the incident. It can also involve medical examinations such as an IQ test, an electroencephalogram and MRI and CT brain scans.

Yamagami has been meeting a psychiatrist appointed by the prosecution several times a month.

He will be taken to Nara Prefectural Police after his detention for psychiatric evaluation expires Tuesday, and then will be indicted by Jan. 13, according to media reports.

Why has it taken so long for prosecutors to decide whether to indict him?

Yamagami has reportedly been logical and coherent when answering investigators' questions, consistently saying that he had held a grudge against Abe and that his mother’s blind faith in — and excessive donations to — the Unification Church ruined his family.

It has been revealed that the mother — who still attends the church’s events — had donated a total of ¥100 million and continued donating smaller amounts even after she became bankrupt in 2002.

Consequently, prosecutors appear confident that they can establish that Yamagami’s mental capacity was neither disabled nor diminished at the time of the shooting. As such, he was not hampered by any mental illness and was able to judge right from wrong and to act on that judgment when he allegedly shot Abe, and therefore can be held criminally responsible for the act.

But given the gravity of the case, the prosecutors are likely to be especially careful in determining the suspect’s mental state, so that his criminal responsibility will not be disputed in court. The evaluation is taking much longer than usual, with the process normally wrapping up in two or three months.

The prosecution and the defense have fought over the extension of his detention period for psychiatric evaluation. The prosecutors had asked for an extension, with the period originally scheduled to end in November, requesting that it continue until Jan. 23, but the Nara District Court denied the request and set it to end Tuesday.

What charges could he face?

Yamagami was initially arrested on suspicion of attempted murder, which was later upgraded to murder. Investigators are also eyeing other charges, including violations of the Firearms and Sword Control Law, the ordnance manufacturing law and the explosives control law.

When will his trial start?

Nothing has been decided, pending his indictment. But since the case involves a murder, lay judges will probably participate in the trial.

In the lay judge system, six ordinary citizens sit alongside three professional judges and hand down a verdict by majority. If the defendant is ruled guilty, a sentence decided by them is given as well.

In such trials, to shorten the trial period and minimize the burden on lay judges, judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers meet before the first hearing and try to narrow down the points of contention and agree on a rough schedule before the ruling. This pretrial process, usually carried out behind closed doors, takes several months.

If the parties decide to widen the scope of Yamagami’s trial to cover not only his direct motive — his apparent grudge against Abe — but also the nature of the politician’s links to the Unification Church or the extent of the financial damage inflicted upon Yamagami's family by the group, it could take even longer before the trial starts.

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