• Kyodo

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The Kobe District Court on Friday acquitted all four central and local government officials accused of failing to take safety measures at a man-made beach in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, where a 5-year-old girl died in a sinkhole in 2001.

The court rejected the argument that the defendants were able to foresee the cave-in in the sand that killed Miho Kingetsu, even though there had been frequent sand collapses before the accident.

The four had pleaded not guilty. They said they could not predict the danger of cave-ins and claimed they were not responsible for safety management at the beach.

Prosecutors had demanded the four — two Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry officials and two Akashi municipal officials — each receive one year in prison.

They said the four officials could easily have predicted that lives would be threatened, because they knew cave-ins had been occurring frequently.

The prosecutors said the defendants have not shown the least bit of contrition, and only tried throughout the trial to protect their own skins by blaming each other.

“Their responsibility is equal,” the indictment said.

But the presiding judge said the site of the fatal cave-in was away from the area where the previous cave-ins occurred and could not be predicted.

Kingetsu was walking with her father when part of the beach collapsed and buried her in sand on Dec. 30, 2001. She was rescued immediately but was critically injured and died the following May.

The beach is owned by the land ministry and the Akashi Municipal Government is its exclusive user.

The defendants were accused of professional negligence resulting in death. They are: Isao Kaji, 62, an official at the time with the infrastructure ministry’s Himeji office on rivers and national highways, Shinichi Tokizawa, 58, a former head of the office’s branch, and former Akashi city officials Masahiro Aota, 61, and Kiyoshi Kanai, 54.

Miho’s mother, Michiko, 37, who was present for the verdict, cried out and collapsed upon hearing it. Miho’s father, Kazuhiko, 39, escorted her from the courtroom.

Although the girl’s family reached an out-of-court settlement with the state and Akashi last August in which they promised to pay about 88 million yen in damages and offer an apology, the father, after hearing the verdict, said, “I have not forgiven the four defendants.”

Afterward, Akashi Mayor Hiroto Kitaguchi told reporters at the municipal office: “I have mixed feelings” about the acquittals. “As mayor, I will convey to Kingetsu the city’s resolve to improve the safety of its beaches.”

In July 2001, Akashi was the site of a fatal crush in which 11 people were killed and 247 injured as they tried to get by each other on a crowded overpass following a fireworks display on a beach. Authorities were later ordered to pay out 568 million yen in compensation over the incident.

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