Japanese police arrested a former head of Mitsubishi Motors Corp. and five others on Thursday on suspicion of professional negligence that led to the death of a truck driver two years ago.

Police told Reuters that, among the suspects was Katsuhiko Kawasoe, 67, who headed MMC until late 2000 when he stepped down to take responsibility for MMC’s hiding of safety records and vehicle defects from authorities.

If found guilty, the suspects face up to five years in prison or a maximum fine of 500,000 yen ($US4,530), the report noted.

“We take this matter very seriously and intend to fully cooperate in investigations to shed light on circumstances surrounding the accident,” Mitsubishi Motors reportedly said in a statement, adding: “We would like to take this opportunity to … offer our sincerest apologies to the bereaved family.”

Reuters noted that, last month, several former Mitsubishi Motors executives, including one-time vice president Takashi Usami, were indicted for violating road and trucking laws in a separate defect case in which a woman died when she was hit by a wheel that came loose from a Mitsubishi Fuso truck in 2002.

Usami was among the five other former executives arrested on Thursday, the report said.

Reuters said the the cases come despite Mitsubishi Motors’ efforts over the past four years to clean up its act after it was revealed in 2000 that it had been hiding safety records and repairing vehicles secretly for two decades, in the industry’s worst recall scandal ever.

According to the news agency, the vehicle maker’s new boss, Yoichiro Okazaki, has vowed to reform the opaque corporate culture at Japan’s fourth-largest car maker but that pledge has fallen on deaf ears as customers steered away from its cars, sending domestic sales down 56% in May.

Reuters said that, in the latest case, police believe the fatal accident in Yamaguchi prefecture, at the southernmost tip of Japan’s main island, could have been avoided had the vehicle maker issued an open recall.

“In 1996, (Mitsubishi Motors) set up an internal committee and found out that there was a problem in the design and production of the clutch housing,” Hiroyoshi Ichikawa, a spokesman at the Kanagawa prefectural police, told Reuters.

He reportedly said the committee concluded that a recall was necessary but the firm decided to conduct secret repairs instead.

According to Reuters, in the accident, the driver lost control of the truck and crashed into a wall when the propeller shafts came off due to the faulty clutch housing.

The report said the truck was made by what is now Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corp., which Mitsubishi Motors spun off in January 2003 – the unlisted truck maker is now owned 65% by DaimlerChrysler and 20% by MMC.

Reuters said Fuso issued a recall last month of about 170,000 heavy-duty trucks that could have a similar defect, admitting that it had broken the law by concealing the problem for eight years.

The news agency noted that the scandals come at a bad time for Mitusbishi Motors, Japan’s only loss-making carmaker, which is trying to rebuild itself for the second time since 2000 and received an emergency rescue package worth $US4 billion last month.

To add to its troubles, DaimlerChrysler, which owns 37% of Mitushishi Motors, said this week it might demand compensation from its partner for the fallout at Fuso, Reuters added.