The criminal trial of Mr. Kazuaki Sakaki, former deputy police chief of Hyogo Prefecture’s Akashi police station, started Jan. 19 at the Kobe District Court. Acting on a January 2010 vote by Kobe’s No. 2 prosecution inquest committee (an 11-member citizens’ panel), court-appointed lawyers have charged Mr. Sakaki with professional negligence in connection with a fatal stampede during a fireworks event in 2001. The vote overrode an earlier decision by the prosecution not to indict him.

In the July 21, 2001, stampede, 11 people died and 247 others were injured. In December 2002, public prosecutors indicted two police officers who were at the scene and three others, including an Akashi city official. The district court found them guilty in December 2004. But the chief and the deputy chief of the Akashi police station were not indicted. The chief died in 2007.

The court-appointed lawyers, who act as prosecutors in the new trial, are expected to face difficulties. But it is hoped that the trial will make clear what kind of judgments Mr. Sakaki made or did not make and what actions he took or did not take during the fireworks event.

In their opening statement in the first hearing, the court-appointed lawyers said that on the day of the fireworks event, Mr. Sakaki was able to understand that a dangerous situation was developing as he watched a TV monitor inside the police station and received reports from police officers who were at the scene. They also said that Mr. Sakaki failed to oppose an instruction from the police station chief in July 2001 to reduce the number of officers assigned to police the event.

The defense counsel in its opening statement said that since there were no reports from the scene that a stampede was imminent, it was impossible for Mr. Sakaki to foresee such a danger. It also said that he had no power to directly give orders to the police officers at the scene.

There is a view that the vote by the citizens’ panel was influenced by bereaved families’ sentiment. But its criticism that the earlier trial only concentrated on what happened on the day of the stampede is reasonable.

The new trial should delve into not only the communication between the deputy police station chief and the police officers at the scene that day, but also the policing plan that was drawn up earlier to prevent problems during the fireworks event.

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