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Asia-pacific

'Shadow Shogun' protests innocence as trial opens

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Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2011-10-06

Ichiro Ozawa, a controversial Japanese politician dubbed the "Shadow Shogun" for his considerable influence in backroom dealings, has pleaded not guilty at the start of his trial over charges he broke the country's laws on political fund-raising.

AFP - One of Japan's most influential political powerbrokers, former ruling party leader Ichiro Ozawa, went on trial Thursday over a funding scandal that has gripped the nation.

Ozawa pleaded not guilty to falsifying reports about money handled by his political fund management body, after three of his aides were last week convicted on similar charges, fueling public interest in the case.

Instead, the so-called "shadow shogun" who leads the biggest faction in the ruling party, called on the Tokyo District Court to halt the proceedings and accused prosecutors of unfairly targeting him.

"This (case) is based solely on testimonies collected by prosecutors' illegal investigation. This (trial) should be terminated immediately," Ozawa told the hearing.

"What the court-appointed lawyers said is not true."

The 69-year-old politician is accused of conspiring with his former aides in not reporting 400 million yen ($5.2 million) of his money that he loaned to his funding body in 2004 to facilitate a land deal.

They paid 350 million yen for the purchase, and reported the deal in documents for a different year, according to the indictment.

Ozawa's aides said the mistakes were purely technical matters.

The trial is the first of its kind in Japan, after a panel of citizen judicial reviewers overturned a decision by prosecutors to drop the case due to a lack of evidence, forcing an indictment by court-appointed lawyers.

As the trial began, Ozawa read a statement criticising prosecutors who investigated the case in the months leading up to the Democratic Party of Japan's stunning 2009 election victory which was overseen by Ozawa.

Serving as party chief from April 2006 to May 2009, Ozawa stepped down four months before the DPJ won that year's general election by a landslide. Yukio Hatoyama became prime minister.

The veteran backroom operator, who narrowly failed to oust another former premier Naoto Kan in a leadership battle a year ago, told the court: "There is no reason for me to face any criminal allegation."

Japan's mainstream media has long been critical of Ozawa's strong political influence, which is based on his vast wealth and allegedly lucrative connections, giving him the status of backroom kingmaker in the DPJ.

He has long been dogged by graft allegations in the Japanese press, but has never been convicted of any offence.

In an indication of Ozawa's influence, Japanese media often gauge senior ruling party members by the strength of their relationships with him.

Ozawa backed Banri Kaieda against Yoshihiko Noda in the party's August leadership election, which Noda won to become Japan's sixth new premier in five years.

Five major networks, including national broadcaster NHK, gave live broadcasts from the trial in which a grim-faced Ozawa appeared wearing a dark blue suit.

Because cameras are banned in court rooms, reporters took took turns to emerge and give detailed updates in front of cameras outside of the building, with former prosecutors and lawyers giving spot analysis.

Ozawa previously served in key positions within the conservative Liberal Democratic Party and worked as the right-hand man of former premier Kakuei Tanaka, who was found guilty of taking bribes and died during his appeal.

Ozawa's supporters say he has been unfairly targeted by opponents of his drive to weaken the overwhelming influence of bureaucrats in Japanese decision-making and bring politics back to the people.

He was indicted in January and his DPJ membership was suspended the following month.

His trial is scheduled to continue until March and a verdict will be handed down in April, according to local media reports. Ozawa is expected to testify in January.

Date created : 2011-10-06

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