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Japanese lawmakers vote to allow wiretaps

Japanese lawmakers on Thursday gave police the power to use wiretaps against crime suspects for the first time, defeating critics who feared it would lead to invasions of privacy.

Opposition lawmakers in the upper house of Parliament tried to delay the vote in a marathon 21-hour session, at one point employing a "cow walk" in which they shuffled excruciatingly slowly _ or almost not at all _ to place their ballots.

The measure was finally approved 142-99. The powerful lower house passed the bill June 1.

The wiretapping law is similar to those in other countries. But many Japanese, remembering secret police brutality during World War II and crackdowns on radical students and labor unions in the 1950s and 1960s, have long been reluctant to hand police greater powers.

"We cannot but feel the sense of danger that people's freedom and privacy are being violated," the national Asahi newspaper said in an editorial Thursday.

The wiretapping measure, part of a three-bill anti-crime package, was aimed mainly at organized crime.

The government said after the vote that it would not abuse its new powers, inspired in part by calls for a crackdown on subversive groups following the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway. The gassing killed 12 people and sickened thousands.

"We will apply these laws appropriately and effectively, and with determined intention we will deal squarely with organized crime," Justice Minister Takao Jinnouchi said.

Police have long sought the power to wiretap, saying it would strengthen their hand against the yakuza, Japan's organized crime syndicates. Two other bills in the package stiffen penalties for organized crime and increase protections for witnesses.

The wiretap bill, which already has been changed to appease critics, requires police to seek court permission for each wiretap, which could be used only in cases of murder or smuggling of drugs, weapons or people. Wiretapping of lawyers, medical professionals and religious officials is restricted.

The law requires the government to report the details of all cases of wiretapping, including who was wiretapped, the length of the surveillance and whether it led to an arrest.

The provision is to take effect within a year.

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