The Okamoto Trial-was Justice Served?

On the 30th of May three young Japanese pretending to be innocent tourists arrived by an Air France flight via Rome to Lydda Airport and within minutes spread havoc at the airport terminal. Twenty-six people were killed and 78 were injured.

Two of the Japanese, who later turned out to be members of the Japanese anarchist movement “The Red Army of Japan,” were killed in this attack; one of them apparently by his colleague who mistook him for just another passenger; the other by his own grenade which exploded in his hands. The third Japanese, at first giving his name as Namba but later identified as Kozo Okamoto emptied his two magazines, threw away his automatic submachine gun and tried to destroy a jetliner with hand grenades. He was spotted by an El Al technician, Hannan Zeitoun, who had the presence of mind and the courage to jump on Okamoto and hold him until police arrived and arrested him.

Okamoto was caught red handed. His guilt was beyond dispute. Yet Israel went out of its way to conduct a trial. The decision to hold a trial was correct. But there was hesitation as to what form the trial should take since the episode had international ramifications. It involved Japanese nationals in the service of Arab terrorists based in Lebanon who landed from an Air France plane from the Italian capital. They committed a crime in Israel and the victims were mainly Puerto Rican tourists who are nationals of the US. The involvement of so many foreign nations could not be ignored. But there were psychological considerations as well.

Immediately after the airport massacre it appeared the trial would start within days. There was not much to investigate and the facts were clear.

“It’s an open and shut case,” prosecutors like to say. Israel wanted an early trial to expose the true nature of the Arab underground and its terrorist organizations. The trial would have been an excellent forum to air the atrocities of the so-called “Freedom Fighters” who have murdered children in a school bus, women in a market place and tourists at an airport terminal. It transpired, however, that the horror was sufficient in itself to create a strong reaction of world public opinion against the Arab terrorists. The Lydda massacre was so revolting that most nations, including some Arab states, could not help but denounce it.

In that light there was no urgency for the trial per se. The State Attorney and the legal advisers to the Army General H.Q. had time to consider what form should the trial take, what court should hear it, what regulations should apply, and what charges should be brought against Okamoto.

Having committed a crime in Israel proper, he could have been tried by a civil court. But a civil court cannot impose capital punishment. But capital punishment apparently was not sought in Okamoto’s case. Israel did not want to create a martyr in the person of Okamoto.

The uncertainty about the composition of the court, the question of the requirement of one or two jurists on the bench if it is to impose capital punishment, indicated the hesitations with which the Israeli legal machinery dealt with in this case. When the military court was appointed, It turned out it could impose capital punishment. A week before Okamoto’s verdict was given a death sentence was issued against an Arab terrorist despite the fact that the prosecution had not asked for it. The understanding was that Okamoto could receive capital punishment. Once the trial was set in motion, the attorney for defense was given all possible assistance. He was faced with a client who refused to help himself or be helped.

Tried under emergency regulations which Israel has inherited from the British mandate days, Okamoto knew he was subject to capital punishment and seemed to want it. He did everything he could to compel the court to pronounce the supreme penalty. Contrary to defense counsel’s advise he admitted the charges and when his lawyer tried to have him examined by psychiatrists, Okamoto claimed he was sane and needed no medical observation. When defense counsel told the court the death penalty could not be imposed because there was no proof that Okamoto was over 18, the prisoner sprang up to say he was 24, born on December 7, 1947.

The surprise revelation of the “pistol agreement” between Okamoto and Gen. Rehavavim Zeevi on the night of the massacre brought about the court’s refusal to accept the oral confession made by Okamoto to a police inspector. However, the court accepted Okamoto’s written confession. It examined the question of Okamoto’s sanity but after hearing Okamoto’s political philosophy, decided against sending him for mental observation.

Surprise was expressed when the prosecutor, Lt. Col. David Israeli failed to ask for a death sentence. We are strong enough not to impose such a penalty, he said. Okamoto still seemed to hope for death. He was found guilty on all counts of murder, discharging firearms and doing service for an illegal organization. When the court accepted the prosecution’s position that the death penalty could serve no end, Okamoto was bitterly disappointed. The case had the desired effect on world opinion. Everyone was revolted by the killings and those who sent Okamoto on his mission of death.

Reactions to the sentence differ. Some Israelis said capital punishment was obligatory; others accepted the sentence. The Puerto Rican victims still in the hospital did not want Okamoto’s life. “Would his death bring back my legs?” one asked.

Okamoto has 15 days to appeal. Apparently he will not. He still says he wants to die.

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