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Updated: January 23, 2010 15:35 IST

Japanese prosecutors question Ichiro Ozawa

AP
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In this photo taken January 16, ruling Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa speaks to reporters after the party's annual convention in Tokyo. Prosecutors who arrested three of Mr. Ozawa's aides last week, questioned the party's most powerful lawmaker on Saturday. Photo: AP.
In this photo taken January 16, ruling Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General Ichiro Ozawa speaks to reporters after the party's annual convention in Tokyo. Prosecutors who arrested three of Mr. Ozawa's aides last week, questioned the party's most powerful lawmaker on Saturday. Photo: AP.

Prosecutors questioned a top leader of Japan’s ruling party on Saturday about his role in a widening fundraising scandal that threatens to undermine the country’s fledgling government.

The interrogation of veteran lawmaker Ichiro Ozawa followed the arrest of three aides and was the first time Mr. Ozawa had agreed to answer prosecutors’ inquiries regarding alleged campaign finance irregularities.

He has denied any wrongdoing, denouncing the investigation as politically motivated and vowing to fight prosecutors’ allegations. Despite growing calls for his resignation, he has so far refused to step down as secretary-general of the Democratic Party of Japan.

Mr. Ozawa, 67, had initially refused to talk with prosecutors but changed his mind amid mounting criticism from both political opponents and allies. Officials from the Public Prosecutors Office questioned him at a Tokyo hotel.

A revered election strategist, Mr. Ozawa is credited with engineering his party’s landslide victory last August that unseated the conservatives who ruled Japan for most of the last 50 years.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama has maintained public support of Mr. Ozawa, but the probe has ballooned into a vexing distraction from passing budgets and fixing the world’s second-biggest economy.

In parliament this past week, lawmakers from the opposition Liberal Democratic Party pounced on Mr. Hatoyama for being soft on Mr. Ozawa.

The investigation also clouds the Democrats’ prospects ahead of this summer’s upper house elections. The vote is widely seen as a key test of public confidence in the new government, which has seen its approval ratings steadily slide since August.

The arrests earlier this month intensified a scandal that stems back to a 2004 land deal in western Tokyo. Prosecutors allege that Mr. Ozawa’s political fundraising arm failed to properly report $4.4 million used in the purchase and suspect that the organization accepted illegal donations as well.

Two Ozawa aides were arrested for allegedly falsifying accounting records and violating Japan’s Political Funds Control Law. Democratic lawmaker Tomohiro Ishikawa, who served as Mr. Ozawa’s private secretary at the time, was also taken into custody.

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