The Yokohama District Court on May 11 acquitted two Maritime Self-Defense Force officers formerly stationed aboard the 7,750-ton Aegis destroyer Atago in connection with the Atago’s collision with the 7.3-ton trawler Seitoku Maru off Chiba Prefecure on Feb. 19, 2008. The collision killed the two fishermen aboard the trawler.

The ruling contradicts the January 2009 judgment by the Yokohama Maritime Accident Tribunal and the Defense Ministry’s May 2009 final report. The tribunal and the ministry blamed the Atago for the collision, saying that because it saw the trawler to its right, it had a duty to avoid a collision under the Law for Prevention of Collision at Sea.

For the trial, the prosecution prepared a chart of the trawler’s track ostensibly based on testimony by another fishing boat captain, saying that he claimed that shortly before the collision, the Seitoku Maru was three nautical miles and seven degrees to the left from his boat. But the captain told the court that he had never testified in such concrete terms.

The court decided that the prosecution had bent his testimony to make it fit the chart it had drawn beforehand. The prosecution’s failure to first scrutinize its assumption that the Atago was responsible for the collision led it to err in building a case.

Based on its own chart of the trawler’s track, the court said it was the trawler’s responsibility to avoid the collision. The court stated that the trawler’s sharp turn to the right shortly before the collision caused the accident and that had it not been for this turn, the trawler would have passed 200 to 500 meters behind the Atago’s stern.

But the ruling cannot explain why the trawler made the sharp right turn to put it in a dangerous position. It should not be overlooked that the ruling stated that the chief night-duty officer on duty aboard the Atago before the collision wrongly thought that many fishing boats near the destroyer were not operating and that his colleague at the time of the collision had failed to keep a sufficient watch. The Atago’s continuation at a speed of about 10 knots on autopilot into an area where many fishing boats were operating until just before the collision defies common sense.

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