FILE - In this March 30, 2011 file photo, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, right, speaks during a news conference at the company's head office in Tokyo. A Japanese judicial committee has decided that three former utility executives should face criminal charges and stand trial for their alleged negligence in the Fukushima nuclear disaster. A document released Friday, July 31, 2015 showed the committee voted in favor of indicting  Katsumata, who was chairman of TEPCO. at the time of the crisis, along with two other former executives. (AP Photo/Itsuo Inouye, File)

A Japanese civilian judiciary panel has forced prosecutors to indict three former executives of Tokyo Electric Power, in what would be the first criminal charges brought against officials in relation to the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

In a statement, an independent review panel of 11 lay people accused the former Tepco officials for failing to take any “effective measures” and “turning a blind eye” to the possibility of an earthquake triggering a serious nuclear accident.

Citizens’ groups welcomed the decision after prosecutors twice decided not to indict the three former Tepco officials. The review panel overruled the prosecutor’s decision on Friday.

“We feel like we’ve finally gotten this far,” said Ruiko Muto, an anti-nuclear activist who represents a group of about 15,000 residents and citizens who had filed criminal complaints with prosecutors against senior Tepco officials.

“We hope that the criminal trial will uncover the truth behind the accident and that justice will be delivered,” Ms Muto said.

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in northeastern Japan suffered a number of explosions and partial meltdown following an earthquake and tsunami hit the country in March 2011. It was the worst nuclear incident since Chernobyl in 1986. Tens of thousands of people have yet to be allowed home.

The three senior managers who will stand trial are former chairman Tsunehisa Katsumata, 75, and former executives Sakae Muto, 65, and Ichiro Takekuro, 69.

In the statement, the panel accused the officials of prioritising on economic arguments over safety, saying they “had a responsibility to prepare for the remote possibility of an accident occurring from a tsunami.”

“If proper action had been taken, it would have been sufficiently possible to prevent this critical and brutal accident from occurring,” it concluded.

Tepco declined to comment on the judiciary panel’s decision. But the utility said it would continue to make efforts to strengthen the safety of its nuclear plants.

While it is rare for a civilian judiciary panel to overrule decisions made by prosecutors, legal experts say it is unlikely a trial would lead to a guilty verdict.

In 2010, a review panel of 11 lay people selected by lottery similarly overruled the prosecutor’s decision not to indict Japanese politician Ichiro Ozawa in a political funding scandal. But two year later, a Tokyo court found Mr Ozawa not guilty, clearing him of charges due to lack of sufficient evidence.

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