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A Japanese citizens’ judicial committee has overruled government prosecutors and forced them to bring three former executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) to trial on charges of criminal negligence for their inability to prevent the 2011 nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. But it appears unlikely that the defendants can be convicted.
The decision by the panel of 22 anonymous citizens, was reached July 17 but not announced until July 31. It overrules two previous decisions by the Tokyo prosecutors not to indict the former executives. The defendants are Tsunehisa Katsumata, 75, chairman of Tokyo Electric Power Co. at the time of the crisis, along with Sakae Muto, 65, and Ichiro Takekuro, 69, who were then vice presidents of the utility.
Decisions by the prosecutors in September 2013 and in January 2015 said they lacked sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against the three men. In response, the citizens’ panel voted twice to demand the former executives’ indictment, trumping the prosecutors’ decisions.
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Such citizens’ committees became a powerful features of Japan’s judicial system after World War II in an effort to combat government abuse of power. Their members are chosen by lottery and the panelists’ identities are kept secret. While they’re powerful, these committees are seldom used.
The committee concluded that the three defendants hadn’t taken necessary steps to reinforce the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, situated on Japan’s Pacific coast and therefore vulnerable to severe damage if it were struck by a tsunami in the earthquake-prone region.
That fear was realized in March 2011 when a Pacific tsunami slammed into Japan, causing widespread destruction, including such heavy damage to three of the four reactors at Fukushima Daichi that they melted down and began leaking radiation. The accident forced the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from the general vicinity of the power plant.
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The decision was good news for surviving victims of the disaster. “We had given up hope that there would be a criminal trial,” said Ruiko Muto, who leads the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster Plaintiffs Group, which represents about 15,000 people, including residents displaced by the accident and their supporters. “We’ve finally gotten this far.”
But the victory may be merely symbolic because most legal observers say it’s unlikely the rigors that the defendants will face will go beyond giving public testimony at trial. There’s also little likelihood any of them will be convicted of a criminal charge because Japanese prosecutors, with 99 percent conviction rates, rarely bring charges unless they are virtually certain they can win the cases.
Cases imposed on them by citizens’ judicial committees are generally those in which prosecutors have concluded lack enough evidence to convict. One former prosecutor, Nobuo Gohara, told The New York Times that virtually all of such cases end in acquittals.
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In the TEPCO case, for example, Gohara said the prosecutors now must prove that the defendants were guilty of criminal oversight of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant by failing to predict the huge tsunami that caused the disaster and neglecting to protect the facility sufficiently.
Further, Gohara said, it will be extremely challenging for the prosecutors to prove that the meltdowns at three of the plant’s reactors even killed anyone. Several people died while the area was being evacuated in 2011, but most were elderly who were too weak to be moved during the chaos of moment. But he stressed that no one so far has died from radiation poisoning.
“This is a very unusual case,” Gohara said. “The hurdles to conviction are high.”
By Andy Tully Of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com