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TOKYO: The co-founder of the Japanese Red Army (JRA) militant group was released from prison Saturday after serving a 20-year sentence, and apologized for hurting innocent people.

“I feel strongly that I have finally come out alive,” she said, welcomed by her daughter and a crowd of reporters and supporters in Tokyo.

“I have hurt innocent people I did not know by putting our struggles first. Although those were different times, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize deeply,” said Shigenobu, the Associated Press reported.

Fusako Shigenobu, 76, was convicted of masterminding the 1974 siege of the French Embassy in the Hague, the Netherlands.  

The Japanese Red Army, formed in 1971 and linked with Palestinian militants, took responsibility for several attacks including the takeover of the U.S. Consulate in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 1975.

Shigenobu first became radicalized during university, where she joined the student movement of the 1960s in Japan. Protests were directed not only at the Japanese government, but also at the US military presence in Japan and against the Vietnam War. As the decade progressed, she became increasingly involved in armed resistance and revolutionary politics, while rampant factionalism overtook the Japanese student movement.

In 1971, a part of the group, which was led by Shigenobu, left Japan and went to Lebanon to support the Palestinian cause, where they became assosiated with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

Fusako Shigenobu and Ghassan Kanafani at the office of Al Hadaf Magazine, Lebanon, 1972. (Samidoun)

While in Lebanon, Shigenobu started working for Al Hadaf magazine, the public relations office of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) alongside its editor-in-chief Ghassan Kanafani, who was also a leading member of the PFLP.

Her position within the magazine enhanced Japanese support for the Palestinian cause through the provision of infmormation to Japanese leftists regarding events occuring on the ground and the Palestinian struggle, according to May Shigenobu in an interview with the the Funambulist.

In May 1972, JRA members were believed to be involved in the machine-gun and grenade attack on the international airport near Tel Aviv, Israel that killed 28 people, including two terrorists, and injured dozens of people. 

Although Shigenobu was not physically present in the attacks, she was forced underground in fear of Israeli reprisals against the JRA members working with PFLP. There were reports on Arab media that Israel attempted to assassinate Shigenobu by bombing the buildings where she resided. 

Around that time, she had gotten pregnant with her daughter named May, who was born in 1973 and the two lived underground for the next 28 years. 

While remaining underground, the Japanese volunteers for the PFLP decided to create a political organization in 1974. Shigenobu became the leader and spokesperson for this internationalist leftist revolutionary organization that took on the Japanese Red Army (and Arab-Red Army in its early stages). They conducted several operations against “capitalist-imperialist entities” such as the Shell corporation in Singapore (1974), as well as demanding the release of political prisoners by occupying the French Embassy in the Hague (1974) and the U.S. Consulate in Kuala Lumpur (1975). Shigenobu denied participating in the Hague incident.

After the JRA became an independent entity in 1974, it sought to ensure the safety of civilians in any future operations. After a policy change, all their militaristic operations ceased by the late 1980s. The group decided to continue their work by focusing on grassroots support and solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Shigenobu was arrested in 2000 in Osaka in central Japan, where she had been hiding. The government charged her with two counts of passport forgery and conspiracy in planning the 1974 hostage-taking operation at the French Embassy in the Hague. Samidoun, the Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network reported that the prosecution presented no concrete evidence of Shigenobu’s involvement and relied heavily on “forced” confession statements taken in the 1970s retracted by those witnesses during the trial. Disregarding such retractions, the judge sentenced her to 20 years of imprisonment.

A year after her arrest, she declared the group dissolved.

Japanese media reports said Shigenobu had undergone surgery for cancer during her incarceration.

After her release, Shigenobu commented on the use of the term “terrorist,” which, she said, was a designation dreamed up by the administration of former USPresident Ronald Reagan. 

“I have never considered myself a terrorist,” She said. 

“At that time, armed forces, liberation forces and revolutionary organizations were the names given to armed political forces. The term “terrorist” was a product of the Reagan administration and Israeli government efforts to conceal dissident political intentions and backgrounds and criminalize them.”

Shigenobu compared the “terrorists” of Palestine fighting for freedom against Israel to those fighting against freedom for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Suppose the Ukrainian people’s struggle against Russian aggression is heroic. In that case, I want them to know that the Palestinian struggle against Israeli aggression and annexation is not terrorism but a heroic struggle,” she said.

On the illegal acquisition and use of other people’s passports for which she was convicted in Japan, Shigenobu apologized and said, “it was a shameful act as a human being.” However, she maintains her innocence regarding the attack on the French embassy in The Hague.

“I fought the case to the Supreme Court, but it was dismissed, and I served my sentence,” she said. 

“Of course, I was dissatisfied and discussed the possibility of a retrial with my lawyer. The retaliatory, heavy-handed attacks and sentences against the former activities of the already disbanded JRA were against me and those who had fought as leaders of the group. Under such circumstances, I gave up proceeding with the retrial because I thought that I could enrich my life by accepting my sentence to take responsibility as a person in a leadership position and by living positively. I do not want the security police and their associates to interfere with my new life.”

Shigenobu has been called both a Japanese terrorist, having been known as the “empress of terror” and a freedom fighter, regarded as both a terrorist and a hero. Despite the relativity of that debate, her unwavering devotion towards the Palestinian cause remains indisputable.

This article was originally published in Japanese on Arab News Japan


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