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Pardons offer petty criminals opportunity to ‘cleanse spirit’

TOKYO >> The Japanese government granted pardons to some 550,000 petty criminals, a tradition tied to Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony last week.

The Justice Ministry said the controversial pardons were granted on the premise that the emperor’s enthronement is “an opportunity for the citizens of Japan to cleanse their spirit and start anew.”

“Such decisions, however, need to be made with consideration of crime victims and their families,” a clemency official said, explaining why those who committed grievous crimes did not receive pardons.

The official said the pardons were granted to those who were fined for minor infractions at least three years ago.

“The pardons will help them get back into society — in the belief that the pardons will alleviate life inconveniences caused by restrictions imposed on them … and will free them of a psychological burden,” the official said.

The amnesty took effect Oct. 22, restoring their civil rights. It also allowed those pardoned to apply for professional licenses, cutting back the usual 5-year suspension. The amnesty did not restore previous licenses, such as suspended driver’s licenses.

About 80% of those pardoned were involved in traffic violations or accidents, including those that caused death or injury.

The official said persons sentenced to prison terms or to penal servitude were ineligible, in deference to families of the victims. Such pardons were deemed “inappropriate.”

In addition, the government granted special clemency to those fined for minor infractions prior to Oct. 22, 2016, upon request. Those pardons were limited to people whose sentences were suspended due to illness requiring hospitalization, or who have little chance of recovery or serving out their sentence. Those who qualified for the special pardons were generally older than 70 or required caregiving.

In Japan, amnesty for acknowledged crimes has long been granted on the occasion of significant national events, and pardons have been issued to criminals 10 times since the modern-day Constitution was introduced in 1947. The last batch was issued in 1993.

In 1989, more than 10 million people received amnesty to mark the death of Emperor Showa, while about 2.5 million people were pardoned in 1990 to celebrate Emperor Akihito’s enthronement.

The system was also used to commute penalties in 1973 after the Supreme Court ruled Article 200 of the Penal Code unconstitutional. The article made killing individuals in a family’s ancestral line a special crime, accompanied by a harsher penalty.

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