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The Yokohama District Court on Feb. 4 ruled that five now-deceased men, three of them journalists, were falsely charged in a case known as the Yokohama Incident, which is regarded as the worst example of wartime free-speech suppression, and ordered the government to pay compensation to six relatives of the five men.

In the past, courts had mostly focused on legal technicality and dismissed the retrials of the five, avoiding judgment on whether they were guilty or innocent.

The Feb. 4 ruling for criminal compensation, finalized Feb. 13, should be regarded as a de facto acquittal. By looking squarely at the investigative and court authorities’ actions under the notorious 1925 Peace Preservation Law, the ruling serves as a stern warning to any court that might attempt to close its eyes to the dark side of the judicial and investigative orgnas’ history.

Between 1942 and the closing days of World War II, the thought-control police, known as tokkou (Special Higher Police), of Kanagawa Prefecture invoked the anti-communism law and arrested some 60 people — most of them journalists — on suspicion of trying to propagate communism. Four were tortured to death in detention and one died immediately after his release on probation. In August and September 1945, the Yokohama District Court gave the five men and 20 others suspended sentences of two years’ imprisonment. For most defendants, only one hearing was held. The law was abolished Oct. 15, 1945, by imperial edict and those convicted were granted amnesty.

In April 1952, three former tokkou investigators were found guilty of torturing suspects in the Yokohama Incident. This strengthened suspicions that the charges against the five men were false. But retrial attempts were not easy. The first retrial request, made in 1986, and the second, made in 1994, were rejected by the Supreme Court. The third retrial request, involving four of the five men — Toru Kimura, Toshio Hiradate, Eizaburo Kobayashi and Hiroshi Yoshida — was accepted by the Yokohama District Court in April 2003.

Although the Yokohama District Court and subsequently the Tokyo High Court held retrials, they dismissed the case without deciding whether the men were guilty or innocent on the grounds that they had been granted amnesty. Later hearings in the Supreme Court resulted in a similar outcome. In October 2008 the Yokohama District Court accepted a fourth retrial request, for Yasuhito Ono. That retrial ended there with a similar ruling.

Ono was charged with attending a July 1942 meeting about launching an organization to reconstruct the then-defunct Japan Communist Party and, as an editor of Kaizo (Reform) magazine, with publishing an essay by Karoku Hosokawa in the August 1942 issue that the tokkou deemed communist propaganda. The essay, which had cleared censorship, called on Japan to learn from the Soviet Union’s policy for nationality questions when dealing with people in areas occupied by Japanese forces.

The Feb. 4 ruling pointed to the strong possibility that the decision to run the essay preceded the meeting for JCP reconstruction, adding that investigators’ argument that the decision was made at the meeting did not hold true.

Importantly, the ruling said it is clear that if the courts that handled Ono’s retrial had been able to make judgment on substance, they would have acquitted him. It said that by torturing him, by acts such as beating him with a wooden sword, the tokkou violated the old Criminal Procedure Law, which prohibited the use of torture or threat. It said that the tokkou carried out the investigation on the basis of very weak evidence, tortured Ono and forced him to make false confessions.

The court said that public prosecutors committed negligence when it indicted Ono without noticing that the Special Higher Police had tortured him, and that an examining judge also committed negligence when he decided to send Ono to trial without noticing the use of the torture.

Summing up Ono’s arrest and trial, the ruling said the tokkou founded the investigation on a one-sided assumption that was accepted by people in the judiciary, thus erroneously resulting in the guilty sentence. The ruling attributed grave and willful negligence on the part of the police, the prosecution and the court. It is significant that the ruling admitted that judges were negligent in their management of the trial.

The Yokohama District Court’s judgment on the cases of the four other men was similar to its judgment on Ono’s. It ordered the government to pay some ¥47 million in compensation to six relatives of the five men — the full amount demanded by the plaintiffs — citing grave negligence on the part of investigators and court authorities.

Although the ruling completely vindicates the five men’s honor, it has come decades too late. The judiciary should take heed of the ruling to help ensure that false charges are not made, and that charges found to be false are quickly withdrawn.

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