YOKOHAMA (Kyodo) Two Maritime Self-Defense Force officers pleaded not guilty Monday as their trial opened over a collision between their destroyer and a small fishing boat off Chiba Prefecture that claimed the lives of two fishermen.
Lt. Cmdr. Keitaro Ushirogata, 38, was standing watch aboard the 7,750-ton Atago just before it ran over the 7.3-ton Seitoku Maru in February 2008, and Lt. Cmdr. Tomohisa Nagaiwa, 37, was the night-watch commander.
During the start of their Yokohama District Court trial, both denied committing professional negligence resulting in the death of the fishermen and of endangering maritime traffic.
“The track chart of the two ships brought up by the prosecutors is not what I have seen,” Nagaiwa said. “It’s a fiction created by the Japan Coast Guard to make me look guilty.”
Ushirogata said, “As public sentiment heated up over the accident, some distorted investigations were conducted.”
The two have been on leave since they were indicted.
In an unusual move, the prosecutors indicted not only Nagaiwa but also Ushirogata, who was not actually in charge of the ship’s movements at the time of the collision.
The trial is expected to focus on the prosecutors’ attempt to show that an overlapping of errors by the two officers led to the collision.
The defense team is expected to argue that the collision would not have occurred if the Seitoku Maru had not made a right turn and accelerated into the destroyer’s path just before the collision.
According to the indictment, Ushirogata spotted a group of three fishing boats, including the Seitoku Maru, at around 3:40 a.m. on Feb. 19, 2008.
Ushirogata, who was required to assume there was a possibility of collision with the fishing boats in handing over the watch to Nagaiwa, is accused of wrongly briefing him at around 3:50 a.m. that the trawlers were not under way while fishing.
Nagaiwa kept the destroyer on course and on auto-pilot, presuming the boats had stopped as briefed by Ushirogata, the indictment says.
The overlapping errors by the two led to the collision, in which the warship hit the Seitoku Maru on the port side at 4:06 a.m., causing fishermen Haruo Kichisei, 58, and his son, Tetsuhiro, 23, to die.
In January 2009, the Yokohama Marine Accident Tribunal, a government body that looks into the causes of sea disasters and takes administrative action, issued a decision that blamed the Atago for the collision, saying improper watch on the part of the destroyer was the main cause.
The marine accident tribunal judged Nagaiwa’s inadequate lookout was the main cause, but it didn’t recognize a causal relationship between the collision and Ushirogata’s actions.
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