Monday, March 17, 2008

Yokohama Incident: The Supreme Court During Wartime

"The Supreme Court on Friday rejected an appeal against a lower court decision to terminate a retrial of five men convicted in the so-called Yokohama Incident, the worst case of free-speech suppression in wartime Japan. Between 1942 and 1945, a special division of the Kanagawa prefectural police arrested dozens of people including magazine editors on suspicion of promoting communism in violation of the Peace Preservation Law.

"All those arrested were tortured to obtain "confessions" and four died in prison. It has long been clear the charges were groundless and the victims were framed by the authorities. After the war, five of the people found guilty spoke up and demanded a retrial.

"Finally, in 2005, the Tokyo High Court agreed to a retrial, recognizing their confessions were made under torture. By then, the five original plaintiffs had died. Their bereaved family members took over the case and continued to seek a not-guilty judgment, hoping to clear the names of the five.

"In its ruling Friday, the Supreme Court did not say the five were innocent. It merely upheld the previous lower court rulings by saying the five were "dismissed from trials."

"Usually, a court terminates proceedings in ongoing cases if the law prohibiting the crime is abolished, or when an amnesty is passed. But when a defendant's case is thus dismissed, the question of the defendant's guilt or innocence is left undecided.

"After the war, the Peace Preservation Law was abolished and the former convicts received amnesties. This fulfilled the legal requirements, and that condition has not changed, according to the Supreme Court.

"But is this logic really appropriate?

"In an ordinary trial, when the applicable law is abolished, the court can terminate the proceedings. But in a case of guilty sentence, unless the court passes a not-guilty verdict in the retrial, the former convicts can never restore their honor.

"It is extremely disappointing that the Supreme Court focused on the narrow legal point and let the retrial termination stand.

"The Yokohama Incident retrial gained wide notice because the public wanted to see how modern Japan's courts would view its past judicial actions--actions that led to suppression of free speech in order to wage war.

"But the Supreme Court has turned a blind eye to the mistakes.

"The tortures conducted by the Kanagawa prefectural special police, which continued until the very end of the war, were abominable. However, the court is not blameless. It issued guilty verdicts based on confessions obtained through torture.

"Moreover, the rulings on the five retrial plaintiffs were handed down by courts after the war ended in 1945. The courts were doubly wrong.

"Apparently, many judges who handed down guilty sentences based on the Peace Preservation Law kept their jobs after the war. Lawyer Eigoro Aoki, who was a judge before and after the war, has written, "Is it acceptable for judges to say that they had no other choice but to hand down guilty rulings? For those who would be judges under the new Constitution, it is their duty to reflect upon their own past actions."

"However, the judiciary community has done little soul-searching about their wartime conduct.

"Today, Japan has its Constitution, legal system and support for free speech--it is much different from the wartime era.

"It is hard to believe something like the Yokohama Incident could happen again. But the Supreme Court's stance of ignoring past judicial mistakes is disturbing.

"The Supreme Court has lost the chance to gain the public's trust."

By Asahi Shimbun (Editorial, 3/17/2008), Link to article (last visited 3/17/2008)

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