A judge blasts prosecutors for their 'improper' investigation into advice given a business client.
Chiding prosecutors for conducting an "improper'' investigation, the Tokyo District Court on Wednesday acquitted the lead attorney of the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult of charges he helped a client company hide assets.
Yoshihiro Yasuda, 56, a renowned human rights lawyer and leader of a campaign to abolish the death penalty, had pleaded not guilty to obstructing the seizure of building rental fees.
Prosecutors had demanded a two-year prison term.
Yasuda is lead defense attorney for Chizuo Matsumoto, 48, founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Matsumoto is awaiting sentencing Feb. 27 for 13 crimes, including the 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system, that left 27 people dead.
In handing down the not guilty verdict, Presiding Judge Masaaki Kawaguchi stridently criticized prosecutors, challenging the credibility of witness testimony they presented.
"It is inevitable to conclude that investigators improperly led (the witness) during questioning to obtain statements that suited their interests in a kind of plea-bargaining arrangement,'' Kawaguchi said.
Prosecutors said they would appeal.
A witness against Yasuda was found to have received a "retirement allowance'' from money pocketed by a former accounting executive of the company Yasuda was accused of advising to hide assets.
Yasuda was arrested and indicted in 1998 on charges of instructing Sun Chungli, president of a real estate firm, to shift building rental fees to dummy firms, thereby hiding 200 million yen in assets.
The company, then named Sun's Enterprise, had borrowed heavily from former jusen housing lenders.
Sun himself was found guilty of obstructing the seizure. His appeal is now before the Supreme Court.
Yasuda's defense counsel argued he only gave advice on corporate reorganization to keep his client's firm afloat.
In upholding this claim, the court said Wednesday Yasuda could not be held criminally responsible for his advice.
The court went on to call "unfair'' prosecutors' failure during the trial to disclose the fact that the former executive pocketed company funds-some of which the witness received-until pressed by the defense. Prosecutors did not press charges against them.
Since the first hearing in March 1999, Yasuda had insisted that the case was "created by the former Housing Loan Administration Corp. (which filed a complaint against him) as well as the police and prosecutors.''
The sharp confrontation resulted in a prolonged detention for Yasuda. It took him 10 months to get released over the objections of prosecutors.
More than 1,200 lawyers joined his defense counsel to support him and to question how offering legal advice to a client-their job-could be considered a crime.
It still isn't clear why prosecutors so aggressively went after Yasuda.
After his acquittal, Yasuda praised the court for "carefully examining every piece of evidence.''
"Since being arrested and indicted, I have been too busy with my own trial to be engaged in activities as a lawyer or campaign against the death penalty,'' he said. "I'm glad that from today I can get back to that work.''
After his arrest, Yasuda was dismissed as Matsumoto's state-appointed counsel. Although he continued to serve as his private counsel, he was too busy to offer much advice.