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Japan's Lower House passes pro-wiretapping legislation

TOKYO (Reuters) -- Japan's powerful Lower House of parliament on Tuesday passed legislation that would allow wiretapping in investigations of organized crime, setting the stage for enactment of the highly controversial bills.

The move prompted an outcry from opposition parties, legal experts, human rights activists and the media, who argue that the bills would violate constitutionally guaranteed rights to privacy and confidential communication.Behind the concerns are worries that the wiretapping could be aimed at political rivals -- a fear that is in part a legacy of Japan's pre-war and wartime experience as a police state.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi's ruling coalition won support for the bills from the Buddhist-backed New Komeito party, a centrist opposition group which has been moving closer and closer to the ruling bloc and whose swing vote is essential for passage later this month in parliament's Upper House.

The legislation would allow authorities to wiretap as part of investigations into four categories of crimes involving narcotics, guns, gang-related murders and large-scale smuggling of foreigners into Japan.

The government presented the bills as part of a package aimed at making it easier to crack down on organized crime, and Komeito members stressed that their support had been given only after the scope of the legislation was narrowed to prevent abuse.

Legal experts, however, said the laws contain a number of loopholes which could allow investigators to wiretap virtually anyone's telephone, facsimile or electronic mail.

"There are major problems with the legislation from the standpoint of the protection of privacy and confidential communication," said lawyer Fumiki Otonashi of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations.

Otonashi said the bills would permit investigators to wiretap into conversations by anyone they believed might commit a crime involving a gang in future.

"You could be a target of wiretapping just for speeding. Investigators could argue that you were speeding in preparation for a bigger crime in the future," he said.

Otonashi and other critics acknowledged that Japan has been an anomaly among advanced countries, most of which have some form of legal framework permitting wiretapping, but nonetheless argued that Japan should not follow suit.

"In the United States, for example, law enforcement authorities want to prevent or handle crimes at the expense of privacy. It should not be the same in Japan," he said.

In 1997, there were about two million cases of wiretapping in the United States and only 17 percent of them were linked to crimes, according to figures from the lawyers' group.

Trade unions from Japan's newspapers, private broadcasters and publishers protested the expected passage of the legislation.