NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – A prominent activist in Okinawa pleaded not guilty on Friday to charges of forcible obstruction of a business and assault in connection with his opposition to U.S. bases in the prefecture.
During his first hearing before the Naha District Court, 64-year-old Hiroji Yamashiro, head of the Okinawa Peace Action Center, admitted to the charge of property destruction for cutting barbed wire at a base.
Yamashiro, who has led groups objecting to the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture, has remained in detention for five months since his arrest in October, prompting human rights groups, including Amnesty International Japan, to call for his immediate release.
Amnesty International Japan has said he does not meet the criteria for those who should be placed in detention because the chances of him destroying evidence concerning his alleged crimes are very low.
In January, supporters of Yamashiro submitted to the Naha District Court a letter with the signatures of about 18,000 people from over 60 countries calling for his release.
A defense lawyer said during the hearing that his arrest was an act of “suppression” as it “deprived citizens of a protest leader.”
As for the charge of forcible obstruction of a business, Yamashiro admitted to the court that he piled blocks in front of Camp Schwab in the Henoko area of Nago. Yamashiro claimed he had no other choice and the protest was a “legitimate” act of “expression.”
Prosecutors said Yamashiro played a central role in the protests and hindered construction work at the base. His defense team argued his act does not constitute forcible obstruction as he did not overwhelm others and could have been easily removed from the scene.
Yamashiro is accused of piling some 1,480 blocks in front of the gate of Camp Schwab in January 2016 with others to prevent the delivery of equipment and materials needed for relocation work there.
He is also accused of injuring a male official with the local defense bureau in August by grabbing his shoulders and shaking him near a U.S. military training area in Higashi, and using a wire cutter to cut barbed wire at the facility the following October.
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