A court in Tokyo on Thursday found influential Japanese politician Ichiro Ozawa not guilty of violating the country's political fund-raising laws, thereby setting up a showdown between him and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda over a contentious tax hike plan.
Ozawa was accused of overseeing false accounting by his staff in connection with a 2004 land deal and using the money generated for political purposes. Although Ozawa has consistently denied any wrongdoing, three of his former aides were convicted last year over the scandal.
Ozawa had insisted during earlier hearings that the charges leveled against him were over a technical mistake which he was unaware of. Prosecutors, however, argued that it was almost impossible for Ozawa's aides to have fudged the accounts without his knowledge.
Ozawa, a former high-profile leader of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), was suspended from the party after his indictment in January 2011. Although the prosecution had initially decided not to proceed with the case citing lack of evidence, Ozawa was indicted after a judicial panel of ordinary citizens ruled that he must face the charges under a system introduced as part of a 2009 judicial reform.
Ozawa, who engineered DPJ's victory in the 2009 general elections that ended more than 50 years of almost uninterrupted rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, has been labeled as Japan's "shadow shogun" over his mastery of backroom deals.
He currently has the backing of nearly 100 lawmakers who oppose Noda's plan to double the nation's prevailing five per cent sales tax rate for tackling the country's mounting debt and meeting rising welfare spending requirements.
Japanese media had indicated earlier that Ozawa's faction plans to field a candidate in the upcoming party leadership ballot in September. Analysts believe Ozawa, whose party membership is now expected to be reinstated soon due to Thursday's court ruling, may choose to run as a candidate himself.
by RTT Staff Writer
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