TOKYO – Japan's lower house approved a bill Tuesday allowing authorities to punish those found guilty of planning serious crimes, legislation that opponents say could be used to undermine basic civil liberties.
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The proposed legislation, called the "conspiracy bill," still requires upper house approval.
The government says it's needed to fight terrorism and organized crime, especially before the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
Lawmakers speaking in support of the legislation pointed to the explosion late Monday in Manchester, England, that killed at least 22 people as a reason for backing the bill.
But thousands of Japanese have taken to the streets to protest what they see as the latest effort to unduly increase police powers.
Opposition lawmakers referred to it as an "evil law."
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Japan's history as a police state before and during World War II has made many here wary of granting the government powers that might impinge on personal privacy and other rights.
Hundreds of protesters rallied outside the parliament building Tuesday, shouting and waving signs and banners to voice their opposition.
"This will bind us so tightly. I wonder why the government and those in power need so much power over us?" said Chizuko Kurata, a protester in her 70s.
A survey by the Kyodo News agency showed that public support for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet fell slightly after the ruling coalition rammed the bill through a committee hearing on Friday. There, opposition lawmakers shouted and sought to rip documents from the hands of the committee chairman, trying unsuccessfully to block the vote after having failed to win a vote of no confidence against the justice minister.
Kyodo said 77 percent of the 1,033 respondents polled said the government had failed to fully explain the need for the bill. Opinions on the bill were almost evenly divided, however, with slightly more opposed than in favor.
The ruling Liberal Democrats' ability to force through legislation with help from its coalition partner the Komeito raises hackles in harmony-oriented Japan. The two parties intend to win full passage of the bill during the current parliamentary session, and debate in the upper house is likely to be ferocious.
Abe has argued that the bill is needed for Japan to ratify a United Nations treaty on international organized crime that took effect in 2003.
But legal scholars say Japan's criminal code already holds conspirators responsible for criminal acts and mandates punishments for preparing for such crimes.
"In Japan's case, the police already have very broad powers of surveillance. They have other broad powers related to criminal investigations and criminal prosecutions," said Lawrence Repeta, a legal scholar and director of the Japan Civil Liberties Union.
"To add even more at this point would really be overkill," he said.
The U.N. special rapporteur on the right to privacy sent an open letter to Abe last week citing concerns over including 277 new types of crimes in the bill, which would revise Japan's Act on Punishment of Organized Crimes and Control of Crime Proceeds.
It said the law would include offenses that have nothing to do with organized crime or terrorism, such as theft of lumber in forest reserves and violations of copyrights. It also cites planning and "preparatory actions" as justifications for investigations that would require significant amounts of surveillance.
"Serious concern is expressed that the proposed bill, in its current form and in combination with other legislation, may affect the exercise of the right to privacy as well as other fundamental public freedoms given its potential broad application," said the letter from Joseph Cannataci, the rapporteur.
The government strongly objected to the letter, said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who described concerns over possible violations of privacy or other rights as "utterly incorrect."
Associated Press writers Kaori Hitomi and Koji Ueda contributed to this report.