Sunday, May 15, 2011

12/05 Silence, relief greet ruling / Gallery quiet as MSDF officers cleared over 2008 collision

The Yomiuri Shimbun

YOKOHAMA--Two Maritime Self-Defense Force officers indicted over a fatal collision involving the MSDF destroyer Atago expressed relief--and anger at investigators--after being acquitted Wednesday, a decision that left the court gallery in silence.

The ruling at the Yokohama District Court went against the finding of a marine accident tribunal that blamed the Atago crew for the collision with the Seitoku Maru fishing vessel off Chiba Prefecture in February 2008.

When presiding Judge Hiroshi Akiyama found Tomohisa Nagaiwa and Keitaro Ushirogata not guilty, the gallery was speechless for a while.

The family of the two men on the fishing vessel who died in the accident--Haruo Kichisei, 58, and his 23-year-old son Tetsuhiro--were clearly upset by the ruling.

Nagaiwa, 37, and Ushirogata, 38, both lieutenant commanders, were duty officers at the time of the collision.

After hearing the ruling, Nagaiwa, who was duty officer of the Atago at the time, took a deep breath, looked up at the ceiling and mumbled, "All right." Ushirogata, who was duty officer right before the accident, flushed and tears welled in his eyes.

After the court was adjourned, the two were greeted by MSDF colleagues and family members in the lobby of the court building.

"Thank you very much," Ushirogata said and bowed.

At a press conference later in the day, Nagaiwa criticized the Yokohama District Public Prosecutors Office for their investigation.

"They're professional investigators, but they flat-out lied. I won't forgive them for that," he said.

Ushirogata also ripped into the investigators.

"There are many unbelievable elements in the investigation," he said, visibly angry. "It's similar to the postal scam," he added, referring to a case in which a former Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry director was indicted--but later found innocent--after a prosecutor tampered with evidence during an investigation into abuse of a postal discount system.

"I suspect [the prosecutors] were doing everything they could to convict us. I want them to read our trial record again before deciding whether to appeal," he said.

Nagaiwa offered his sympathies to the bereaved family, saying: "The accident was unfortunate, but I was doing what I should've been doing at the time. I offer my condolences once again."

Takao Mine, a lawyer for the two officers, said the court had made the correct decision.

"The court objectively considered the evidence. The ruling makes sense," Mine said.


Decision shocks nephew

Yoshiaki Kichisei, Haruo Kichisei's nephew, did not hide his disgust toward the court's decision during a press conference Wednesday after the ruling. "The ruling's as if an acquittal was decided from the very start," he said.

Questioning that the destroyer Atago had alerted the Seitoku Maru fishing boat to its presence, Yoshiaki, a 21-year-old company employee, was critical of the court's decision. "Who heard the sound of the alert apart from the Atago's crew? It can't be proven."

"The accident occurred because two vessels collided while at sea. It's ludicrous that one side isn't to blame," Yoshiaki added.

Yoshiaki idolized his cousin Tetsuhiro whom he fondly referred to as "anchan" or elder brother. Yoshiaki sat in on the trial from the very first hearing last August because he "couldn't understand how such a kind 'anchan' died."

On May 5, Yoshiaki visited Haruo and Tetsuhiro's family grave. During the visit, Yoshiaki said, "The court will finally issue a ruling. I'll be there for it.

"I want the court's ruling to reflect true justice. I hope the decision won't be made lightly."

But the Yokohama District Court acquitted the Atago crew members. A very disappointed Yoshiaki said, "How can I face the family grave?"

Surprised reactions to the acquittal also have been expressed at the Defense Ministry.

In January 2009, the Yokohama Marine Accident Tribunal ruled that an improper watch on the part of the Atago was the main cause of the accident.

A report compiled by the accident's investigation commission at the MSDF said in May 2009 that the accident was caused because of inappropriate monitoring by the Atago's crew and insufficient coordination between the Atago's enclosed bridge and the destroyer's Combat Information Center.

Based on the report, the MSDF developed preventive measures such as reviewing duty shifts and developing new monitoring guidelines.

A MSDF senior officer was therefore surprised at the court decision, and said, "The marine accident tribunal decided that the Atago was responsible for the accident. So it's something of a shock that both Atago crew members were found innocent."

MSDF Chief of Staff Adm. Masahiko Sugimoto issued a comment: "As this case is a personal criminal case, we have declined to comment. However, we will not forget the tragedy and will continue to make efforts to prevent similar accidents from occurring."


Faulty case led to verdict

By Shoichi Kodaira / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer

YOKOHAMA--The not-guilty ruling handed down to two Maritime Self-Defense Force duty officers in the trial over a 2008 collision involving the MSDF Aegis destroyer Atago can be attributed to problems with the prosecutors' case.

In the trial at the Yokohama District Court, the defense counsel criticized the investigative methods of the prosecution and the Japan Coast Guard as "arbitrary."

For instance, memos believed to have been prepared by JCG officials who had questioned defendant Tomohisa Nagaiwa--including documents regarding radar data--were apparently destroyed at their own discretion.

The prosecution's use of testimony that they claimed was from the skipper of a fishing ship sailing with the Seitoku Maru, which collided with the Atago, was also flawed. During the trial, prosecutors said they had reconstructed the course of the Seitoku Maru based on the skipper's testimony.

In court, however, the skipper said, "I think [the prosecutors] drew the course by themselves."

The trial revealed that the prosecution's version of the course had been made before the skipper's deposition, despite the prosecutors' claim the depiction was based on his testimony.

As the prosecution's claims about Seitoku Maru's course fell apart, their charge that insufficient watch by the Atago led to the collision also failed to stand up.

The not-guilty verdict will likely weigh heavily on the prosecution and the JCG.

(May. 12, 2011)

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