Former Justice Minister Katsuyuki Kawai and his lawmaker wife Anri were indicted Wednesday on a charge of vote buying during her upper house election campaign last summer, a development that could deal a further blow to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration.
Kawai, a House of Representative member known for having close ties with Abe, was arrested with his wife on June 18 on suspicion of violating the election law by handing out millions of yen in cash to politicians and supporters in Hiroshima Prefecture to reward them in helping her get elected in July 2019.
"I'm keenly aware of my responsibility as the person who appointed him as justice minister some time ago," Abe, whose Cabinet has seen dwindling public support in recent weeks, told reporters. "I'd like to apologize to the public."
If the Kawais are found guilty and the rulings are finalized, they will lose their seats in parliament.
According to the indictment, the 57-year-old former minister handed out about 29 million yen ($270,000) to 100 people, including local politicians in Hiroshima, between March and August last year with the intention of securing votes.
His wife is accused of conspiring with him on 1.7 million yen of the cash handouts to five individuals between March and June.
Kawai served as special advisor for foreign affairs to Abe before being named justice minister last September. He stepped down from the ministerial post the following month after a separate election scandal came to light.
He has admitted to distributing cash but denied he intended to buy votes, while his wife has said she has no recollection of involvement in illegal activities, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Prosecutors have seized documents from their home which they believe list cash distributions of around 30 million yen in total.
The two are likely to receive their court rulings within 100 days of their indictment. For trials involving election-related crimes, the Public Offices Election Law urges courts to swiftly deliver rulings, typically within 100 days.
On Wednesday, the defense counsel for Anri, 46, filed a request for her bail with the Tokyo District Court.
Tokyo prosecutors have identified Kawai as the chief manager of his wife's campaign under the election law, and if he is found guilty in that role her victory in the election will be annulled regardless of her involvement.
In a press conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga declined to comment on their indictment, saying the government is not aware of the details in it.
The two, who resigned from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party over the scandal, are now facing calls from some party members to explain how they spent 150 million yen the party gave them ahead of the upper house election.
Some local politicians who have admitted receiving cash have resigned from their posts. The prosecutors have decided not to charge them as they did not solicit the money, according to the sources.
In the election, Anri, a former prefectural assembly member, was backed by Abe's team to win one of the two seats up for grabs in the Hiroshima constituency despite concern she would split the vote with a fellow LDP candidate, the then-incumbent veteran Kensei Mizote.
Mizote, who had made comments critical of Abe in the past, failed to win re-election due to the conservative vote being split, with another incumbent backed by opposition parties retaining a seat.
The LDP headquarters offered an unusually large amount of 150 million yen to Kawai's camp, while the money provided to Mizote's camp was 15 million yen, which is considered the average amount to be given by the ruling party for an election campaign, according to people familiar with the matter.