Japan ex-official gets prison term in casino bribery case

TOKYO (AP) — A Tokyo court on Tuesday sentenced to four years in prison a former top government official for taking bribes from a gambling company, in a high-profile case that has added to the political woes of Japan's outgoing prime minister ahead of elections this year.

The Tokyo District Court found Tsukasa Akimoto, who was a vice-minister in charge of tourism and casino promotions, guilty of taking 7.6 million yen ($69,200) in bribes from a Chinese gambling operator that was aiming to start a casino business in Japan. The court also fined Akimoto the amount in bribes he received from the Chinese company.

The court's decision comes as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is already facing criticism for his government's coronavirus policies and hosting the Olympics despite widespread health concerns.

Three other former ministers and a lawmaker from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party have been found guilty in separate bribery and election fraud cases over the past few years.

Suga on Friday announced that he will not seek another term, paving the way for a new party leader ahead of parliamentary elections to be held by late November.

Akimoto, who has since left the ruling party, was also found guilty of offering bribes to his former advisors to make false testimony in court to cover up his wrongdoing.

The former vice-minister pleaded not guilty of any charges in his trial. Prosecutors alleged that Akimoto accepted the bribes in 2017-2018, including 3 million yen ($27,000) in cash and other gifts, from the Chinese company in return for his support for a plan to build a casino in Japan.

Judge Toshihiko Niwa said in his ruling that Akimoto's obstruction of legal proceedings by bribing witnesses showed his complete lack of compliance with the court, NHK public television reported.

Akimoto, who was released on bail, will have to return to jail following the sentencing. Akimoto's former aide, Akihiro Toyoshima, received a suspended prison term.

Japan passed a controversial law allowing casino gambling in 2016, a measure promoted by the ruling LDP as a way to stimulate the country’s economy and find new sources of revenue, including capitalizing on the surging number of Chinese tourists.

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