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The Yokohama District Court last week made a disappointing ruling in a case stemming from the state’s wartime suppression of freedom of speech. The court could have shed light on the dark side of modern Japanese history by delving into a variety of related issues, including the questionable conduct of law-enforcement authorities and the judiciary.

Instead, the court focused mostly on legal technicality and dismissed a retrial of five now-deceased people convicted in a case known as the Yokohama Incident. By avoiding judgment on whether the five were guilty or innocent, the court missed an opportunity to do its own soul-searching on the violation of a principle essential to the well-being of society.

The Yokohama Incident is regarded as the worst case of free-speech suppression during the Pacific War. By invoking the notorious 1925 Peace Preservation Law, a legal instrument used by the government to clamp down on communists and other dissidents, the tokkou (Special Higher Police) of Kanagawa Prefecture arrested about 60 people, many of them journalists, between 1942 and the closing day of the war. Four were tortured to death in detention and one died immediately after being released on probation.

More than 30 people were indicted and most of them were given suspended sentences in trials at the Yokohama District Court immediately after the war. The arrests led to the closure of monthly magazines Kaizo (Reform) and Chuo Koron (The Central Review).

The retrial had been requested by the bereaved family members of five former defendants who were sentenced by the Yokohama court to two years in prison, suspended for three years, in August and September 1945 — shortly before the law in question was abolished on Oct. 15 of that year. They were found guilty of helping the then-outlawed Japanese Communist Party achieve its goals. The bereaved family members sought the acquittal of the five, saying that they were framed and that torture was used to force their confessions. In March 2005, the Tokyo High Court upheld a decision to retry the case.

However, the Yokohama court refused to examine the substance of the case for the retrial. It chose to cite a 1948 Supreme Court ruling that when conditions exist for dismissal of a trial, thus leading to the expiration of authority to indict, a court cannot go ahead with proceedings to produce either a guilty or not-guilty ruling. The Yokohama court said the abolition of the Peace Preservation Law and the application of a general amnesty to the five — two days after the abolition of the law — led to conditions for dismissing the trial. The defense counsel immediately appealed the ruling, calling it an unjust judgment that followed the argument of the prosecution.

The district court seems to have failed to fully consider what the Tokyo High Court pointed out when it granted a retrial to the bereaved family members. At that time, the high court acknowledged the existence of “new evidence,” saying it should lead to a non-guilty ruling.

The new evidence referred to the 1952 conviction of three former police investigators accused of torturing Yokohama Incident suspects, and to a statement submitted by 31 former defendants, including the five, when they filed a complaint against the police officers. The high court said it is extremely difficult to deny the trustworthiness of their statement that they were subjected to torture and made false confessions.

In fact, the Yokohama court’s ruling said if it had not been for the conditions favoring a trial dismissal, and if additional new evidence was not discovered that contradicted previous new evidence cited by the high court, a ruling in line with the thinking of the high court would have been handed down. To say this while dismissing the retrial is an act lacking in courage and sincerity.

In part of the ruling, the court refers to “defendants who were indicted on a false charge and died a regrettable death” as if to acknowledge their innocence. The court’s failure to make a substantial judgment will only deepen people’s distrust of the judiciary.

The court pointed out that even if the retrial was dismissed, the Code of Criminal Procedure provides ways for compensation and vindication of honor for the former defendants. This argument sounds like an excuse. Toward the end of August 1945, a large number of documents, probably including trial records of the Yokohama Incident, were burned in the hills behind the Yokohama courthouse. In fact, a lack of trial records was the biggest obstacle to an early start of the retrial.

The retrial’s unsatisfactory ending serves as a reminder that Japan has yet to close the book on the dark side of its prewar and wartime history.

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