Unexpected Defeat: The Unsuccessful War Crimes Prosecution of Lt Gen Yamawaki Masataka and Others at Manus Island, 1950
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The Australian war crimes trials conducted at Manus Island in 1950–1951 were carefully selected to produce, albeit with adherence to due legal process, certain convictions followed by death sentences. The consequent acquittal — twice — of Lt Gen Yamawaki Masataka on charges of murdering Australian Army officers and soldiers or failing to try them properly and fairly for alleged crimes before executing them was, at the time, very unexpected. This article examines how and why one of these two prosecution cases against Yamawaki and his co-accused was selected for trial and assesses how this supposedly watertight case was misjudged in the pre-trial phase to the extent that it resulted in easy acquittals. The case was misjudged because of three quite understandable factors: firstly, the presumption, not without some due cause by the end of the war, that the Japanese routinely committed war crimes, including the murder of prisoners-of-war; secondly, the emotionalism that surrounds the executions of soldiers by the enemy and the desire to hold the enemy accountable for their actions; and, thirdly, the shortcomings, ambiguities and conflicting interpretations possible of international law at the time regarding espionage and the punishment of spies and a relatively uncertain grasp of how that law could be applicable to the facts of the case. The failed prosecution demonstrates just how difficult it was, and still can be, to reconcile perceptions that a war crime had been committed and expectations of conviction and punishment with the reality of dealing with international criminal law, and all its ambiguities, as it stood in the mid-20th century, and as it still stands today.
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