Sunday, September 18, 2016

Japan court rejects Okinawa move to block U.S. base relocation

TOKYO — A Japanese court ruled Friday that Okinawa's governor exceeded his legal authority by revoking a permit to reclaim land for the relocation of a U.S. military base, allowing the central government to proceed with the plan despite protests by local residents.

The decision is part of an ongoing legal battle between the southern island of Okinawa and Japan's government over plans to move the base to a less-populated part of the island, which have stalled for 20 years.

Okinawa said it will appeal the ruling by the Fukuoka High Court to the Supreme Court.

Gov. Takeshi Onaga, who wants the Marine Corps Air Station Futenma moved off the island, revoked the reclamation permit last October.

Onaga said he was "dumbfounded" by the ruling.

"I was expecting the court to be a guardian of the law, but it turned out to be just a rubber-stamp arm of the government," Onaga told reporters. "The judgment took local governance so lightly and trampled on the feelings of the Okinawan people."

In its ruling, the court said the reclamation permit was legal and that Onaga's refusal to retract its revocation despite a central government request was "illegal."

Opponents and environmentalists have resisted the relocation plan for years, saying it doesn't significantly reduce the burden of hosting the U.S. base, which they want moved off Okinawa.

Okinawa hosts more than half of the 50,000 U.S. troops based in Japan under a security treaty. Many residents complain about the large American troop presence, as well as noise, pollution and crime from the bases.

The Futenma relocation is part of a 1996 bilateral agreement to reduce the burden of the U.S. military presence on Okinawa that also includes the transfer of about 9,000 U.S. Marines outside of Japan. The deal was prompted by widespread outrage over the 1995 rape of a schoolgirl by three American servicemen.

Protests have also intensified recently over Japanese government plans to construct U.S. military helipads at another location, an environmentally protected site in northern Okinawa. The central government recently mobilized hundreds of riot police from outside the island to block the protesters and used Japanese military helicopters to bring in dump trucks and other heavy equipment.

Onaga said he will not give in until the central government finds a site for the Futenma base outside of Okinawa.

The court said the relocation of Futenma to the island's east coast is the only way to reduce both the risk at its current crowded location and the burden of American troops on Okinawa.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga welcomed the ruling as "fully acknowledging the government position." He said the central government will continue its efforts to resolve the dispute through dialogue. 

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