Japan's Ozawa cleared in funding scandal, may challenge PM

Thu Apr 26, 2012 7:27am GMT

By Tetsushi Kajimoto and Kaori Kaneko

TOKYO (Reuters) - A Japanese court on Thursday acquitted former ruling party chief Ichiro Ozawa of violating political funding laws, allowing the veteran politician to return to his familiar role of being a thorn in the side of the prime minister.

The verdict by a Tokyo district court will likely add to Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's struggle to preserve party unity and push through a contentious sales tax hike plan that Ozawa and his faction in the party fiercely oppose.

Ozawa, 69, whose mastery of backroom deals cut during his four-decade political career earned him nicknames of "Prince of Darkness" and "Shadow Shogun," has suffered a series of setbacks in the past few years.

But he still leads the biggest faction within the ruling Democratic Party and continues to galvanise voters: some admiring him for his knack of shaking things up and others detesting him as a symbol of old-school pork-barrel politics.

All major TV channels broke into their regular programmes with the news on the verdict and the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper published an extra afternoon supplement with the news.

Dozens of his supporters cheered outside the courthouse, carrying placards with his picture on one side and a sign saying "Innocent" on the other.

"I pay my respects to the court for showing common sense and justice, and I thank my comrades and people across the country for supporting me up to today," Ozawa said in a statement.

Analysts say the threat of an early election may prevent Ozawa's backers from revolting against the prime minister, and that the fate of the tax bill rests primarily with the opposition which controls the parliament's upper house.   Continued...

Japan's ruling Democratic Party of Japan powerbroker Ichiro Ozawa speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tokyo March 14, 2012. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao
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