Thu, Mar 05, 2009 - Page 5 News List

Ozawa defends aide after arrest

PRESSURE? The Japanese opposition leader said a raid of his office by prosecutors might be politically motivated as parliamentary elections must take place before Sept. 10

AP , TOKYO

Japan’s opposition leader said yesterday he would not quit after the arrest of a key aide in a donations scandal that dealt a major blow to the party’s efforts to topple unpopular Prime Minister Taro Aso’s government.

Ichiro Ozawa, the leader of the Democratic Party of Japan and a top contender to become the next prime minister, said no laws were broken and suggested the arrest was politically motivated.

“What my aide has done is perfectly legal,” Ozawa said at a news conference, a day after the arrest of Takanori Okubo on suspicion of violating political funding regulations.

“I have nothing to feel guilty about,” Ozawa said.

Ozawa said Tuesday’s raid of his Tokyo office by prosecutors might be politically motivated, as elections for the lower house of parliament must take place by Sept. 10. Prosecutors yesterday also raided Ozawa’s local office in northern Iwate Prefecture.

“This unprecedented probe came as we are in the midst of heading toward the lower house polls. I feel this is an execution of power carried out by authorities in a politically and legally unfair manner,” he said.

Tokyo prosecutors allege that Ozawa’s political funding organization, Rikuzankai, received ¥21 million (US$216,000) in illegal donations between 2003 and 2006 from two political organizations headed by former executives at the scandal-tainted construction firm Nishimatsu Construction Co.

The two executives were also arrested on Tuesday on suspicion they used their organizations as a cover to funnel corporate donations, which is banned under Japanese political funding laws.

Okubo, 47, is the chief accountant of Rikuzankai.

Ozawa called the arrest of Okubo and the ensuing investigation “extremely unfair.”

The arrest was seen as a major setback to Japan’s largest opposition party, which is surging in popularity polls. Some experts say it could oust the Liberal Democratic Party in the next general election. The Liberal Democrats have ruled for most of the past 50 years.

Ozawa, once a powerful liberal democrat who later defected, has received more public support than Aso in recent voter polls.

In a survey by the Mainichi Shimbun last month, some 25 percent of respondents favored Ozawa as Japan’s next prime minister, against just 8 percent for Aso.

But Hiroshi Kawahara, political science professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University, said the arrest of Ozawa’s top aide would have repercussions for the opposition.

“It really marred the image of the party, as many voters see it as the only alternative to the Liberal Democratic Party,” Kawahara said.

If convicted, Okubo could receive up to five years in prison or a fine of up to ¥1 million.

The construction officials face up to three years in prison or fines of up to ¥500,000 for violating laws that ban company donations to political groups.

Company officials were not immediately available for comment.

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