The Japanese government is under fire over a plan to allow police to arrest people for plotting illegal activities, with opponents charging it is a step toward wiretapping and curbs on free speech.
Concerned by the rising global threat of terrorism, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's government is seeking to ratify a UN convention against international crime before parliament recesses on June 18.
But it was stalled last week in a parliamentary committee amid strong protests against the security bill, which would revise domestic laws to create the charge of conspiracy even if a suspect did not carry out a crime.
Japan has signed the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and 120 other nations have ratified it, although they have implemented the treaty in different ways.
But in Japan, conspiracy charges conjure up unwelcome images of the past, as the militarist government during World War II used them to silence critics.
The debate also comes amid the furor in the US over President George W. Bush's authorization of wiretaps on telephone calls and screening of e-mails without court approval.
The Japan chapter of PEN, an international human rights organization whose members are authors and journalists, said the bill was too ambiguous and would allow authorities to abuse their power.
"Dark shadows are about to cover this democratic nation," it said in a statement.
The Japan Federation of Bar Association has also declared its opposition.
"Since what people say in conversations, phone calls or e-mails would be subject to charges, investigators may try to justify wiretapping and e-mail censorship, bringing further surveillance to society," it said.
Under pressure, Koizumi's ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan are revising their proposals, but the government has remained committed to passing a bill in the current parliamentary session.
The government said the measures are necessary to battle the country's powerful crime syndicates and terrorist networks.
Japan has been repeatedly threatened in statements from al-Qaeda over its troop deployment to Iraq.
"Time and time again I have said that this applies only to organized criminals," Justice Minister Seiken Sugiura said recently.
"Some people may have interpreted further and developed suspicions that this would also apply to labor unions or civic groups. That speculation may have concerned people, but there's nothing to worry about," he said.
But an official from the opposition Democratic Party in charge of drafting a counterproposal said the government bill would loosen current law, under which prosecutors must prove evidence of actual criminal acts.
The official, who asked for anonymity, added: "As long as the nation has decided to conclude the international convention, we have to do it with as many deterrents as possible to prevent charges from being employed arbitrarily."
Japan still remembers the wartime Peace Preservation Law, which was intended to crush the communist movement but in practice allowed police to target anyone opposed to the government.
Under the law, some 60 journalists, editors and other publishing workers were arrested between 1942 and 1945 in what is now known as the "Yokohama Incident," as they were all detained in the city outside Tokyo. At least seven died either in jail or later from injuries allegedly sustained during torture.