When three antiwar activists were detained by the Tokyo police for 75 days in 2004, the Nobel Prize-winning international rights group, Amnesty International, formally declared them to be “prisoners of conscience,” thus tarring Japan’s reputation with a brush that is ordinarily reserved for the world’s most oppressive regimes.
A similar story is playing out in Okinawa as I write this. There, a 64-year-old antiwar activist has been held in detention on trivial charges for more than 70 days. Over the past two years of peaceful protests against U.S. military base expansion in northern Okinawa, Hiroji Yamashiro emerged as the face of Okinawan resistance, the man with a megaphone in hand who urged crowds of protesters to speak out. Arrested on Oct. 17 and denied visits by anyone other than his attorneys since then, he has been silenced.
Japan’s criminal procedures are extremely harsh. Suspects can be held up to 23 days before the government is required to either file an indictment or release the detainee. Attorneys are not allowed to be present during interrogations. In Yamashiro’s case, the police have employed the insidious practice of serial arrests on unrelated charges in order to ensure an extended detention. He remains behind bars.
According to news reports, the first arrest was based on suspicion that he cut a wire fence at the U.S. helipad project at Takae. Later, he was arrested on the separate charge of injuring a Defense Ministry worker during a scuffle in August. On Nov. 11, he was indicted on both of these charges.
After indictment, suspects are allowed to file requests for release on bail for the first time, but in Japan’s Kafkaesque system, courts usually deny these requests when opposed by prosecutors. On Nov. 29, Yamashiro was arrested yet again, this time on suspicion of obstructing official activities by placing concrete blocks in the road outside Camp Schwab. Police say the concrete block action occurred in January 2016. They waited for 10 months before making this arrest. The new arrests enabled them to commence interrogation of Yamashiro all over again.
Arrests were accompanied by police searches of Yamashiro’s home and the citizen group he leads, Okinawa Peace Movement Center. Regarding the search that accompanied the concrete block arrest, a fellow activist was quoted to say “How could they possibly find evidence related to events of almost a year earlier?” He was indicted a second time on Dec. 20.
Of course, the true reason for Yamashiro’s detention is that he has effectively led opposition to U.S. Marine Corps base expansion at Camp Schwab and the nearby Takae helipad area. Masses of protesters, sometimes in the hundreds, appear daily outside the gates to protest base expansion. Yamashiro has been the most prominent among them, urging protesters to continue their vigil and leading them in chants that condemn the occupation of Okinawan land by foreign military forces.
Despite the solid opposition of the Okinawan people, Japan’s national government has remained committed to base expansion in northern Okinawa. The government’s treatment of Yamashiro shows that it will not let international human rights principles stand in the way.
The most important body of international human rights law is found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The covenant took effect in 1976 and has been ratified by 158 countries. Japan ratified in 1979.
The extended detention of a political activist like Yamashiro violates several provisions of the covenant. Article 9 prohibits arbitrary arrests and lengthy pre-trial detentions. Regarding detention, the language is uncompromising: detainees “shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release.” Moreover, Article 9 states “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.” This language applies directly to the Yamashiro case. The covenant requires that Yamashiro be released pending trial.
Because arbitrary detention is a standard tool used by authoritarian governments to silence critics throughout the world, in 1988 the United Nations General Assembly adopted principles that prohibit lengthy detentions like this. Denial of communications and family visits is a special concern. U.N. Principle 15 expressly declares that communications with the outside world, and in particular family members, “shall not be denied for more than a matter of days.”
Moreover, there is the question of the government’s motivation. According to a working group of the U.N. Human Rights Council, when “the deprivation of liberty results from the exercise of rights or freedoms” such as freedom of speech and assembly, the police action is arbitrary and therefore violates Article 9. Yamashiro is a prominent leader of the Okinawan opposition to military base expansion. His detention is a direct restriction of the fundamental rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, perhaps the most important principles of democratic government.
Above all, extended detention under harsh conditions prior to trial amounts to a rejection of our most important protection against unlimited police power: the presumption of innocence. Again, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is unambiguous: Article 14(2) reads, “Everyone charged with a criminal offense shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.” The only purpose served by Yamashiro’s repeated arrests and detention is to punish a man who has never been convicted of any crime.
The extended detention of Hiroji Yamashiro is a shocking display of raw government power. The U.S. Marine Corps wants the big base complex it has been promised in northern Okinawa. In order to accommodate them, it appears that Japan’s government will put aside the most basic human rights protections in order to crush protesters like Yamashiro even as construction crews work offshore of Camp Schwab and in the adjacent Yambaru forest, crushing magnificent coral beds and chopping down trees by the thousand.
Lawrence Repeta is a law professor at Meiji University and a member of the Washington State Bar Association.