KOBE – A former deputy police chief pleaded not guilty Thursday to professional negligence over a fatal pedestrian crush after a fireworks show in Akashi, Hyogo Prefecture, in 2001.
Kazuaki Sakaki, 64, was deputy Akashi police chief on the Hyogo prefectural force on the night of July 21, 2001, when the postfireworks throng attempted to head to the local train station en masse via an enclosed pedestrian overpass, leaving 11 people dead and 247 others injured. The 11 who were crushed to death ranged in age from 9 to over 70.
“I did all I could. I was not negligent,” Sakaki, charged with failure to prevent the accident, said at the opening of his Kobe District Court trial.
Before entering the plea, Sakaki offered an apology to the relatives of the victims.
Sakaki was indicted in April 2010 after an independent judicial panel of citizens made two consecutive decisions that he should be charged — making his indictment mandatory.
The indictment by the court-designated lawyers who are serving as prosecutors alleges Sakaki should have foreseen the dangers the massive crowd posed and enforced stricter crowd control.
Sakaki’s counsel argued that the accident could not be foreseen at that time and that the statute of limitations for professional negligence had expired.
Prosecutors, who indicted five people over the accident, did not charge Sakaki, and the inquest panel’s repeated conclusions that he be tried as well hadn’t taken effect until a legal revision in May 2009 made such decisions legally binding when reached twice.
Sakaki was thus charged nearly nine years after the accident — making him the first to face mandatory indictment under the revised law.
This means the statute of limitations, which at the time was five years for professional negligence resulting in death and injury, will be also be an issue in his trial.
The lawyers acting as prosecutors have argued that the statute of limitations for Sakaki no longer applies, arguing that the Code of Criminal Procedure states it is put on hold when any alleged accomplices are charged.
Of the five people initially prosecuted, all of whom were later convicted, one is an area officer with the Akashi police station who was considered by the team to be Sakaki’s accomplice.
In an opening statement, the lawyers insisted that Sakaki, who was in a position to know about the congestion at the site, could have prevented the accident by sending policemen to control the crowd.
His counsel argued that their client did not know the level of crowding at the scene and that Sakaki was not complicit with the area officer in the field.
The three-judge panel led by presiding Judge Tetsuya Okuda is expected to conclude Sakaki’s trial next fall and rule next year.