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Gov't accused of unjustified lengthy detention of Okinawa anti-U.S. base activist

Hiroji Yamashiro (far right), head of the Okinawa Heiwa Undo Center (Okinawa peace movement center), is seen here in the Takae district of the northern Okinawan village of Higashi with fellow protesters against the construction of Osprey helipads inside the U.S. Marines' Jungle Warfare Training Center, or Camp Gonsalves, on Aug. 5, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Rody Shimazaki)

A charismatic leader of the anti-U.S. military base movement in Okinawa Prefecture has been detained for over four months and banned from receiving any visitors except attorneys over minor charges that would ordinarily not elicit such severe treatment, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

    Criticism for the extended detention of Hiroji Yamashiro, the 64-year-old leader of Okinawa Heiwa Undo Center (Okinawa peace movement center), has widely been voiced by Japanese legal experts and international human rights organizations.

    "It is obvious that the intent of the arrest is to remove a leader from the frontlines and crush a movement," journalist Satoshi Kamata said at a press conference calling for Yamashiro's release, at the House of Councillors Members' Office Building in the Nagatacho district of Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on Jan. 12.

    With critic Makoto Sataka and writer Keiko Ochiai seated alongside him, Kamata likened Yamashiro to the late South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, in his criticism of the political oppression that is taking place in Japan today. Some 350 people, including opposition lawmakers, gathered at a rally held immediately after the press conference, calling for Yamashiro's prompt release.

    Yamashiro was arrested by Okinawa Prefectural Police on Oct. 17 of last year for the quasi-flagrant offense of cutting through barbed wire that had been put up in a forest near land in northern Okinawa Prefecture that was to be leveled and made into a U.S. military helipad for Osprey tiltrotor aircraft.

    The following day, a member of the Osaka Prefectural Police's riot police -- one of many riot squads that were dispatched to Okinawa Prefecture from other prefectures to assist Okinawa police in dealing with anti-base protests -- was recorded on video calling protesters "dojin," a derogatory term for aborigines. While this incident and the tensions on the ground caught nationwide attention, Yamashiro's detention continued, and he was slapped with fresh arrest warrants for two incidents that took place months earlier.

    One such incident is said to have taken place on Aug. 25. Yamashiro allegedly grabbed and shook the shoulders of an officer from the Defense Ministry's Okinawa Defense Bureau who was putting up a fence to prevent protesters from going into one of the Osprey helipad construction sites, and was charged with obstructing a government official from carrying out official duties and causing injury. The bureau official is said to have suffered a two-week injury of whiplash and bruising on the right arm. Yamashiro was arrested with another protester.

    The other incident is said to have happened in front of the gate of Camp Schwab, along the coast of which is where the U.S. and Japanese governments have agreed to build a new base to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in the southern Okinawan city of Ginowan. Several protesters, including Yamashiro, set down concrete blocks in front of the gate to prevent construction vehicles from entering the base on Jan. 28, 2016. But it was not until 10 months later that Yamashiro was arrested on charges of forcible obstruction of business. Yamashiro and two others have been in detention since the series of investigations.

    Since his arrest, Yamashiro has not been permitted to receive any visitors, including his family. His attorneys are the only connection he has with people in the outside world. Prosecutors continue to cite "a risk of destruction of evidence" to rationalize the limitations on visits and his extended detention.

    Shunji Miyake, an attorney for Yamashiro, says, "The prosecutors wrote a brief that read, 'Because the defendant's attorneys disapprove of the interrogation records, there is a risk that evidence will be destroyed.' That's a preposterous argument. It's like declaring, 'We won't allow you to carry out a legitimate defense of the defendant,' and the courts are just following along with that."

    Miyake continues, "Prosecutors have repeatedly gone through pretrial procedures that are usually not required for petty offenses such as the ones Mr. Yamashiro is accused of, and every time they do that, the date of the first hearing has been pushed back. ... I think the prosecutors' intention is clearly to prolong Mr. Yamashiro's detention. They should just cut to the chase and start the trial, but they think they can continue to keep him in custody by citing that he is 'at risk of destroying evidence' until the first hearing, or until prosecutors finish substantiating their evidence."

    What is the purpose of this rare long-term detention? "I feel there's a clear political motivation," says photographer Rody Shimazaki. In November of last year, Shimazaki was arrested by Okinawa Prefectural Police at his home in Tokyo. The charges were the same as those cited for Yamashiro's second arrest: obstructing a government official from carrying out official duties and causing injury on Aug. 25. Ultimately, Shimazaki was released in early December after 21 days in police custody. He later learned through media reports that his indictment had been deferred.

    Shimazaki, who had been reporting on Okinawa since before his arrest, feels that the series of high-handed arrests made last fall was a shift that ran in parallel with the dispatch of riot squads from around the country to Okinawa Prefecture, in response to the expansion of the anti-U.S. military base movement. The hostility-filled derogatory remark made by the Osaka prefectural riot police officer is just one example of that shift.

    "I felt like the authorities' actions were emotionally motivated, like when right-wing internet trolls say, 'Die, left-wingers,'" Shimazaki says of the sense he got of the tensions on the ground and during interrogations. "For the Okinawa Prefectural Police, it has got to be better to have Hiroji on the ground," Shimazaki explains. "He's been a leader of the movement for a long time, so he has a relationship with the police. It's because of Hiroji's presence that the protesters come together, and in situations where they need to back off, he knows how to negotiate."

    Shimazaki suspects that the decision to remove Yamashiro from the ground was made by the central government. Reporters with local media outlets in Okinawa agree.

    "Okinawa Prefectural Police know very well that Mr. Yamashiro doesn't have a single violent bone in his body," one reporter says. "Such a lengthy detention would not have been possible in the past. I feel that orders to remove Yamashiro from the ground were issued by the central government."

    In response to Yamashiro's prolonged detention, calls for his prompt release have come not only from the ground of the anti-U.S. base movement, but from criminal law experts and Amnesty International, the world's largest international human rights NGO.

    "In terms of law administration, I think this is a highly problematic case," Takeshi Honjo, a professor of criminal law at Hitotsubashi University Graduate School of Law, points out. He was among those who proposed last December that criminal law experts issue a statement calling for Yamashiro's prompt release. Honjo hadn't been involved in the anti-U.S. military base movement, but he couldn't ignore the fact that "there was something obviously wrong with this case," and decided to sign the statement.

    Under law, continued detention of a suspect or defendant is permissible only in cases in which there is a possibility that the person in question will flee or destroy evidence.

    "It's questionable whether there even is any evidence that could be destroyed in the case of the severed barbed wire or the case involving the Okinawa Defense Bureau official, let alone the case involving blocks that allegedly took place 10 months before Yamashiro's arrest. It's crazy to continue detaining someone for such arbitrary reasons," Honjo says. "No wonder people are suspicious that the real reason for the lengthy detention is to sabotage the movement."

    Another unusual fact about Yamashiro's detention that Honjo points out is its length -- over four months -- when measured against the damage caused by the alleged incidents.

    "As a general rule, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Even if Yamashiro were to be found guilty on all counts, he would probably only be subjected to fines or a suspended sentence. A basic pillar of law is the principle of proportionality. And this lengthy detention is an aberration compared to the magnitude of the crimes the government is going to try to substantiate. Even when examined within the context of International Covenants on Human Rights, this case is problematic. What is the state trying to achieve through Yamashiro's case?" Honjo asks. "The criminal justice system is being used as a tool to steamroll the state's policy of building U.S. military bases. It makes me extremely uncomfortable."

    In April 2015, Yamashiro stepped away from the frontlines of the anti-base movement to undergo treatment for malignant lymphoma. "To keep someone in that condition in detention for such a long time for minor crimes is abnormal," says Osamu Nishitani, a specially appointed professor at Rikkyo University's Graduate School of Arts. Nishitani became involved with Okinawa through his field research, and has gotten to know Yamashiro in the past several years.

    "When I heard that Mr. Yamashiro had been banned from receiving any visitors, including his family, I thought we were talking about the secret police of a backward state." Nishitani points to the construction of a U.S. base off the coast of Henoko, by Camp Schwab, as a turning point in post-World War II Japan and Okinawa. "Until now, the U.S. military bases in Okinawa Prefecture had been built on land forcibly taken from Okinawans by the U.S. military using the 'bayonets and bulldozers' method during World War II and the Cold War. But a new base in Henoko would be the first one built by the Japanese government using extreme measures in spite of local protest."

    Protests are held in front of the Naha District Court every day, with people calling for the quick release of Yamashiro. But on Feb. 20, the Supreme Court dismissed a special appeal for Yamashiro to be released on bail. The two others who were arrested alongside Yamashiro are also still in detention.

    Says Yamashiro's attorney Miyake, "Mr. Yamashiro's wife is taking it all very valiantly, saying, 'It's OK that Yamashiro is released last, since he's the leader.'"

    The first hearings for the three defendants are set to take place on March 17.

    Calls for the release of Hiroji Yamashiro and other detainees:

    Dec. 16, 2016,Ten foreign experts issue a statement, including a professor emeritus at a national university in Australia

    Dec. 28, 2016,Forty-one (later 64) criminal law researchers issue an emergency statement

    Jan. 9, 2017,The Japan Lawyers International Solidarity Association issues a statement of protest

    Jan. 9, 2017,An environmental NGO with a 76-country network issues a statement

    Jan. 17, 2017,A civic organization comprising former judges and lawmakers submits approximately 40,000 petition signatures

    Jan. 20, 2017,Satoshi Kamata and other prominent figures submit approximately 18,000 petition signatures spanning 66 countries

    Jan. 26, 2017,Amnesty International issues an urgent call to action

    Feb. 18, 2017,Six lawmakers from the Okinawa Prefecture constituency issue a statement

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