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Okinawa protest leader found guilty of anti-base demonstration offenses

Last year, people gathered daily in front of Naha District Court in Okinawa, Japan, to protest the detention of anti-U.S. base protest leader Hiroji Yamashiro.

MATT BURKE/STARS AND STRIPES

By HANA KUSUMOTO | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 14, 2018

Okinawa’s prominent anti-base protest leader has been found guilty of a string of protest-related offenses that included cutting barbed wire on a fence surrounding a U.S. military installation.

Hiroji Yamashiro, 65, chairman of the Okinawa Peace Activity Center, was found guilty of all charges and sentenced Wednesday to two years in prison with hard labor at Naha District Court; however, the sentence was suspended for three years, according to defense-team member Shunji Miyake.

Yamashiro appealed the decision to the high court soon after his sentencing, Miyake said.

Yamashiro and his group are committed to halting U.S. military expansion within the island prefecture, including the relocation of air operations from Marine Corps Air Station Futenma to Camp Schwab in the remote northern recesses of the island.

After his October 2016 arrest for cutting a strand of barbed wire on a perimeter fence at Okinawa’s Northern Training Area while protesting the construction of U.S. military helicopter landing pads, prosecutors added other charges. Some stemmed from months earlier, such as obstructing officers and causing injury after a scuffle between police and protesters and the forcible obstruction of business after Yamashiro was accused of blocking a Camp Schwab construction gate with more than 1,000 concrete blocks.

Yamashiro was detained for five months before being released in March 2017 on a $64,000 bond. His incarceration in solitary confinement drew international attention and condemnation from human-rights groups.

Yamashiro had pleaded not guilty to most of the charges, but admitted to cutting the barbed wire. His lawyers argued that a long detention for what they say are minor offenses is a clear violation of his right to freedom of expression.

“To some extent, obstruction should be accepted as freedom of expression,” Miyake said, claiming that most Okinawans are against the Futenma relocation. “[The ruling] showed how maturity of democracy is low.”

In December, prosecutors had recommended a sentence of two and a half years with hard labor, suggesting that Yamashiro’s actions went beyond the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Japanese constitution.

The Okinawa Peace Activity Center collected more than 316,000 signatures demanding the court to drop the charges, group officials said. The signatures — which included about 2,400 from outside of Japan, mostly from the United States — were submitted to the court on Friday.

During his incarceration, Yamashiro was kept in solitary confinement with no natural light after guards covered up his windows, he told Stars and Stripes last summer. He also said he was denied access to his doctor, denied treatment for a cavity and that guards kept the lights on in his cell at all times and removed towels and items he placed over his face to help himself sleep.

Groups like Amnesty International and Veterans for Peace took up his cause, and protests demanding his freedom sprang up on the island and in the U.S., until he was released on bond. Yamashiro then spoke at the United Nations, toured Japan and continued his protest efforts.

kusumoto.hana@stripes.com

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