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Leader of anti-U.S.-base movement in Okinawa denies some charges in first trial hearing

NAHA -- In the first hearing of the trial of anti-U.S. military base activists here on March 17, a leader of the movement acknowledged that he cut barbed wire that had been installed onto the fence of a U.S. military base, but denied the other charges brought against him -- forcible obstruction of business, as well as obstruction of government officials' duties and causing bodily injury.

The hearing for Hiroji Yamashiro, the 64-year-old leader of Okinawa Heiwa Undo Center (Okinawa peace movement center), and two other men was held at the Naha District Court and was presided over by judge Jiro Shiomi.

Yamashiro is accused of stacking concrete blocks in front of the gate of U.S. Marine Corps' Camp Schwab in the Henoko district of the northern Okinawa Prefecture city of Nago, to prevent construction vehicles from entering the base. Camp Schwab stands along the site where the Japanese government is set to build a replacement base for U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is currently in the southern prefectural city of Ginowan. Yamashiro argued that his actions were a valid form of protest and expression, and denied the charge of forcible obstruction of business.

As for the charge that he injured an official from the Defense Ministry's Okinawa Defense Bureau, thereby obstructing government officials' duties and causing bodily harm, Yamashiro stated, "The official's actions were lacking the nature of valid official duty, and I was merely trying to stop them. I did not do anything to cause bodily injury."

Yamashiro went on to say, "I have been forced to remain in long-term detention for the past five months. My isolation has been anomalous, and constitutes an unjustifiable clampdown. Okinawa's anti-war movement will press onward, even more powerfully than before. Our fight will not be stopped."

A 66-year-old man who is charged with forcible obstruction of business by teaming up with Yamashiro, and a 44-year-old man charged with obstruction of government officials' duties and causing bodily harm likewise appeared before the court and denied the charges brought against them.

Since his arrest on Oct. 17 last year, Yamashiro has been detained for some five months with a strict restriction on visitors, and his situation has attracted widespread attention and criticism both at home and abroad. In addition to a group of criminal law researchers issuing an emergency statement on Dec. 28, 2016, criticizing Yamashiro's "unjustifiably lengthy detention," author Keiko Ochiai and journalist Satoshi Kamata held a press conference and rally on Jan. 17 this year, calling for the movement leader's swift release. Just over a week later, on Jan. 26, Amnesty International issued an urgent call to action for the prompt release of Yamashiro out of concern for his health, as he was hospitalized in 2015 to undergo treatment for malignant lymphoma.

Yamashiro's attorneys have filed for his release on bail throughout his detention, but the Naha District Court has dismissed the requests, citing "the possibility of destruction of evidence." Special appeals made to the Supreme Court twice were also dismissed.

"Yamashiro is charged with relatively petty crimes, and there is very little chance that evidence could be destroyed," says attorney and former Tokyo High Court judge, Akira Kitani. "If the authorities are worried, they could attach conditions to Yamashiro's release. His lengthy detention is inappropriate, and there is no way to refute accusations that the long-term detention has been carried out 'for the purpose of suppressing the movement.'"

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