TOKYO — After five months in detention without trial, one of the leaders of Okinawa’s movement against the expansion of U.S. military bases in the southern Japanese island prefecture has been released on bail.
Hiroji Yamashiro, a 64-year-old who leads the Okinawa Peace Action Center, had been held under highly restrictive conditions in jail while facing relatively minor charges.
But Japan’s high court upheld an Okinawan district court decision — which local prosecutors had appealed — and set him free.
“I couldn’t be happier to see everyone again, everyone that I’ve been longing to see again,” Yamashiro said after he was released Saturday night, greeted by crowds of cheering well-wishers.
Yamashiro has been one of the most vocal opponents of U.S. military construction in Okinawa, leading protests against the building of new Marine Corps facilities.
Such protests have helped delay a plan by Washington and Tokyo to close the Marine Corps air station at Futenma, a huge piece of prime land in the heart of Okinawa’s most densely packed area, and replace it with a new facility next to an existing base in a more isolated area near Henoko.
The overwhelming majority of Okinawans oppose the relocation of the base from Futenma to Henoko, according to local newspaper polls. They say Okinawa bears too much of the burden of Japan’s military alliance with the United States, as it represents only 1 percent of Japan’s land mass but houses 74 percent of the U.S. bases in the country, and that the air station should be put in another prefecture.
In October, Yamashiro was arrested on suspicion of cutting a wire fence around a Marine Corps helipad construction site in the forest near Takae in northern Okinawa. Three days later, prosecutors included another charge: interfering with public officers’ duties and causing bodily injury. They alleged that Yamashiro grabbed a civil servant from the Okinawa Defense Bureau and shook him, bruising his arm and hurting his neck, about two months earlier.
Then, in late November, prosecutors added a third charge: obstruction, accusing Yamashiro of putting concrete blocks on the road in front of the site at Henoko 10 months earlier.
Other protesters saw a political motivation behind the staggered charges: In Japan, suspects can be held for 23 days before they must be indicted or released.
“Considering the relatively minor nature of the charges, it’s very unusual to keep him detained for so long,” said one of Yamashiro’s attorneys, Chihiro Kawazu.
At his first court hearing Friday, Yamashiro pleaded guilty to the charge of cutting the fence. He pleaded not guilty to the two other charges.
His attorneys asked for him to be released on bail, and the district court agreed, but prosecutors appealed the decision. On Saturday night, the high court agreed with the lower court’s ruling.
Supporters and some legal experts viewed Yamashiro’s extended detention as an attempt by authorities to silence a prominent opponent of the bases and to send a message to other protesters.
“Five months in detention before trial. No visitors except lawyers for all that time,” said Lawrence Repeta, a U.S. lawyer who teaches at Meiji University in Tokyo. “This is obviously a denial of the right to be presumed innocent. In cases like this in Japan, the punishment comes first and the trial later.”
Yamashiro had been held in a 52-square-foot cell and had not been allowed visits from his family until last week, when he was permitted to see his wife.
Supporters of Yamashiro have been protesting outside Naha District Court every weekday, said Katsunori Teruya, a friend.
Amnesty International had been calling for Yamashiro to be released and for him to be allowed visits from his family.
“Detaining him for such a long time raises concerns that this action is designed to have a chilling effect on other activists because he’s such a symbolic figure,” said Hiroka Shoji, an East Asia researcher at Amnesty.
Okinawan police representatives have denied any political motivation behind the detention.
Yamashiro’s next hearing is set for April 17.
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.