Detention of Okinawa activist sparks cries of political oppression
NAHA, OKINAWA PREF. – The three-month detention of a prominent anti-base activist in Okinawa has sparked cries of political oppression that activists say is aimed at weakening opposition to new U.S. military facilities in the prefecture.
On Friday, supporters of Hiroji Yamashiro submitted a letter with the signatures of about 18,000 people from over 60 countries to the Naha District Court calling for his release. The signatures were mainly collected online.
One of the organizers, writer Satoshi Kamata, said at a news conference the same day that he believes Yamashiro, who has led civic groups opposed to the relocation of U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma within the prefecture, was arrested for political reasons.
“Crackdowns on the peace movement by a military state have begun,” Kamata said. “I believe Yamashiro’s arrest was politically motivated.”
On Jan. 17, a civic group organized by a former judge and others made a similar request with the local court, handing over a letter with the signatures of about 40,000 people.
Yamashiro, the 64-year-old head of the Okinawa Peace Action Center, was arrested in October on suspicion of cutting barbed wire near the site of a helicopter landing pad construction site within a U.S. military training area on Okinawa’s main island. The project has been fiercely opposed by local residents and activists.
Fresh arrest warrants have since been served against him, with one alleging he obstructed base relocation work by piling pieces of concrete in front of one of the entrance gates at a U.S. Marine base in Nago, where Futenma’s replacement runway is to be built on partially reclaimed land.
The signature drive was organized by Kamata and other well-known figures, including nonfiction writer Hisae Sawachi. They have demanded the release of Yamashiro and others detained in connection with their opposition to base relocation. The group has also called for the lifting of visitation restrictions imposed on those being held.
The move came the same day that a U.S. military helicopter made an emergency landing on Okinawa’s Ikei Island — the second such incident involving U.S. aircraft in just over a month.
On Saturday, the Defense Ministry lodged a protest against the helicopter’s emergency landing on a farm road on the island.
Koichiro Nakajima, head of the Okinawa Defense Bureau, made the protest to Col. Scott Conway, the U.S. Marine Corps’ external affairs chief, at the landing site, where U.S. personnel investigated the cause of the incident.
Nakajima said the landing has made residents on the island very nervous. Conway, who called the incident regrettable, said that the U.S. side will provide relevant information.
The AH-1Z attack helicopter, which was deployed to Futenma in the densely populated city of Ginowan last November, left the site at around 11 a.m. Saturday following safety checks.
The helicopter had to make the landing when a glitch was detected in its control system during a trial flight conducted ahead of a night drill, the Okinawa Prefectural Government and other sources said.
The incident came after a U.S. Osprey tilt-rotor transport aircraft crash-landed in shallow water just off Nago last month.