The Khabarovsk trial in the reflection of foreign historiography.

A trial was held in Khabarovsk to prosecute the leaders of the Japanese bacteriological programme from December 25 to December 30 in 1949. Since 1932 the Japanese military established a network of scientific institutions where medical human experimentation was conducted with intent to develop bacteriological weapons in the puppet state of Manchukuo. The Khabarovsk trial was intended to bring up issues that had been evaded by the Tokyo Military Tribunal implemented in 1946.

Japanese biological weapons were little known at the beginning of the work of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, convened in Tokyo on April 29, 1946. Only in August 1946 the U.S. Attorney’s Office was able to provide the court with information about biological warfare research and human experimentation conducted by the Japanese military. However, the court demanded additional evidence. Initially, the U.S. Attorney’s Office appealed to the Soviet Union with a request for cooperation in the criminal investigation of the atrocities committed by the Japanese in the war, and the USSR considered sending a group of war prisoners from Soviet camps to Japan as witnesses at the trials in Tokyo. Nevertheless, the USA’s approach changed soon, the United States refused to cooperate with the Soviet Union in bringing Japanese bacteriologists to court. This was related to the fact that US military gradually began to realize the extent and value of the secret information that the Japanese possessed. They intended to obtain this information in exchange for immunity for key figures of the Japanese bacteriological warfare programme which they were conducting, including the programme manager Dr. Shiro Ishii and his colleagues who managed to escape from the main research center in Manchuria. As a result, the USSR decided to organize a separate tribunal over Japanese criminals. The beginning of the Cold War and the growing tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States greatly influenced the way this tribunal was conducted. Nevertheless, the Khabarovsk trial was the only trial of Japanese servicemen who, more or less, were participated in the development and testing of biological weapons on humans, and in other horrific medical research. Twelve high-ranking Japanese military officers were brought to court, including the commander-in-chief of the Japanese Kwantung Army, General Otozo Yamada, the head of the sanitary department of the Kwantung Army, Lieutenant General Ryuji Kajitsuka, the head of the production department of unit No. 731 of the Japanese Kwantung Army, Major General Kiyoshi Kawashima. All twelve accused war criminals were convicted and sentenced to terms ranging from two to twenty-five years in prison.

The Khabarovsk trial was organized and conducted by the Soviet Union according to Soviet domestic and national legislation in compliance with all international legal norms. The Soviet Government, through the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union, informed the world community about the conduct of a process. However, there were no foreign representatives and journalists at the trial. According to the chief interpreter at the trial, G.G. Permyakov, several Western and Japanese newspapers, among them The New York Times and Asahi Shimbun, sought permission to send reporters to Khabarovsk, but they were refused. And in the Soviet Union the Khabarovsk trial was not given due attention. The Khabarovsk trial began on December 25, 1949, on the day when preparations for the grand celebration of the 70th anniversary of I.V. Stalin continued throughout the country. An article about the beginning of the trial of Japanese criminals appeared only on the last page of “Pravda”, filled with wassail, without any explanations [1].

At the end of the Khabarovsk trial, the Soviet ambassadors in Washington, London and Beijing, on behalf of the Soviet government, transmitted a diplomatic note about the trial to the governments of the United States, Great Britain and China. Official materials on the case were published in the USSR in English in 1950. “Materials on the trial of former servicemen of the Japanese army charged with manufacturing and employing bacteriological weapons” was the name of the book. It included the documents of the preliminary investigation (indictment, documentary evidence, interrogation protocols, the testimony of the accused and witnesses. This document outlined the main facts established during the trial. In this regard, the Soviet Government proposed in the near future to try Emperor Hirohito, Generals Ishii, Kitano Masaji, Wakamatsu Yujiro and Kasahara Yukio in a special international military court for war crimes.

This report was ignored by the Western allies. The Khabarovsk trial was briefly mentioned in several British newspapers, but only the Daily Worker published an extensive article about the trial, which criticized the United States for protecting those “who admitted the most terrible war crimes” [2].

In July 1949, the communist doctor Heinrich Kent, who worked as a doctor during the Sino-Japanese War, published in the newspaper of the Communist Party of Austria “Volkstimme” his story that he observed the use of bacteriological means by the Japanese in China. After the Khabarovsk trial in January 1950, Kent’s testimony was published in the newspaper Der Abend [3].

Short reports on the Soviet trial were broadcast in France, Spain, Denmark, West Germany and East Germany. The Khabarovsk trial caused even less reaction in the American media. In rare publications that touched on this topic, the Khabarovsk trial was referred to as “an attempt to distract the international community from the fate of Japanese war prisoners in the Soviet Union.” [4].

Despite all the efforts of the USSR to disseminate the materials of the Khabarovsk trial through diplomatic channels and media channels, the facts about the Japanese bacteriological weapons programme presented at the trial were rejected by the Western media as “communist propaganda” and largely forgotten. This was a direct result of the escalation of the Cold War conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. A representative of General Douglas MacArthur’s staff even stated that after a “full investigation” they could not find any evidence of the use of biological weapons by Japan [5].

Changes in the foreign policy of the USSR with the coming to power of N.S. Khrushchev and the Sino-Soviet confrontation of the 50s and 70s led to a situation where the Khabarovsk trial was largely forgotten even within the Soviet Union. This situation continued until the end of the Cold War, when materials with an analysis of the Khabarovsk trial began to appear in the Russian media and in scientific journals.

The newspaper Japan Times published an article by independent journalist Russell Workin “The Trial of Unit 731” in 2001. R. Workin writes about the Khabarovsk trial: “While Soviet officials deliberated on what to do with them (Japanese war prisoners involved in the development of bacteriological weapons), U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur secretly granted immunity to the physicians of Unit 731 in exchange for providing America with their research on biological weapons. Presented with evidence that downed U.S. airmen had been victims of grotesque experiments, MacArthur suppressed the information. Russians aware of the atrocities in Harbin were outraged. Josef Stalin responded by ordering trials of his own. On Dec. 25, 1949, the trial of Unit 731’s doctors began, with orders to finish by the end of the year, before implementation of a decree reinstating the death penalty in the Soviet Union. Stalin apparently feared that Japan might execute Soviet prisoners of war if the physicians were hanged in Khabarovsk, Permyakov (interpreter at the Khabarovsk trial) said.

In 2002, the book of the American historian, professor of the University of California Sheldon Harris “Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare 1932-1945 and the American cover”, which described in detail the activities of unit 731 and its leader, Dr. Ishii. [7]. The book actively used materials about the Khabarovsk trial, published in the USSR in 1950. Speaking about the Khabarovsk trial, Sheldon Harris wrote that the evidence presented during the hearings was “based on eighteen volumes of interrogations and documentary materials collected during investigations over the previous four years. Some of the volumes included more than four hundred pages of testimony … Unlike the Moscow show trials of the 1930s, the confessions of the Japanese made at the Khabarovsk trial were based on facts, not on the fantasies of their guides” [8].

Doctors who were concerned about the “moral responsibility” of doctors for participating in the illegal development of weapons of mass destruction under the pretext of “protecting national interests” picked up the baton of analyzing the materials of the Khabarovsk trial.

In 2004, an interdisciplinary conference sponsored by the Center for Bioethics and the Center for East Asian Studies was held at the University of Pennsylvania (USA). The conference was devoted to both historical and contemporary cases of “unethical research” in Japan, Germany and the United States.  In the book published as a result of the conference, two chapters are devoted to Unit 731. [9] In the same year 2004, Professor of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Otago (USA) Jing Bao Ni published an article in the American Journal of Bioethics entitled “Concealment by the United States of Japanese atrocities in medicine during the war: complicity in a crime for the sake of “national interests” and two proposals regarding modern actions”.  The author claimed that immediately after the war, the United States Government secretly granted the participants of the Japanese bacteriological programme immunity from prosecution for war crimes, ignored important information at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, and publicly condemned irrefutable evidence from other sources, such as the Khabarovsk trial in Russia. [10]. In the article, Jing Bao Ni stated that acting in the “national interests” and in the interests of security, the US authorities trampled on justice and morality, doing what the tradition of English common law clearly defines as “complicity after the fact” and invited the US government to “make an official apology and pay appropriate compensation for the concealment of Japanese war crimes in the field of medicine for six decades to correct this historical injustice.” [11].

Two years later, Jing Bao Ni published another article entitled “The West’s denial of the process in Khabarovsk as “Communist propaganda”: ideology, evidence and International bioethics” in which he examines in detail the process of 1949 in Khabarovsk, and the West’s rejection of this process “convincingly illustrates some age-old ethical problems, such as the duality of evidence and the power of ideology in creating (or failing to make) interethnic and intercultural factual and moral judgments” [12].

In November 2015, the Google posted the materials of the Khabarovsk trial for free access on the Internet. Now it has become difficult to hush up Japanese crimes and the hiding of war criminals by the Americans. In the West, there have been numerous works on the Khabarovsk trial, which have not escaped the imprint of modern information wars. Following the logic that “the best defense is an attack,” some representatives of the Western media and the scientific community attacked the Khabarovsk trial.

In 2014, a two-volume edition of The Historical Origins of International Criminal Law was published. A large article about the Khabarovsk trial was written by the assistant editor of the magazine “Spiegel” Valentina Polunina. The article was titled “Soviet Policy on War Crimes in the Far East: the Test of Bacteriological Warfare in Khabarovsk 1949.”  At the beginning of the article, she immediately accused the Soviet leadership that “justice for the victims was not among the main goals of the Khabarovsk trial” [13]. In her opinion, the main goals were “geopolitical considerations in the emerging bipolar world to establish good relations with the newly born People’s Republic of China”, “the desire to get the secrets of bacteriological weapons”, “to demonstrate to the whole world the alleged advantages of Soviet justice” and, as a conclusion, “to promote the image of the Khabarovsk trial as an exercise in communist propaganda” [14].

And then in her article V. Polunina begins to contradict her own statements.  For example, her conclusion that one of the reasons for the “delay” of the trial of the Japanese was the fact that the crimes were not committed on the territory of the USSR and were not against Soviet citizens, she herself refutes, citing the testimony of the defendants, that at least forty Soviet war prisoners became victims of the experiments. Her claim that “propaganda sentiments and a vague legal framework did not contribute to worldwide recognition due to non-compliance with fair trial standards,” she herself disputes with a wide list of defendants’ rights “in accordance with the rules in force in the Soviet Union and did not have much in common with Western legal practice.”

In conclusion, V. Polunina concludes that “the Khabarovsk trial is a clear example of not only the Soviet policy of trials of war crimes during the early Cold War, taking into account its geopolitical interests in Asia, but also the confusion of the political context, propaganda and ambivalence towards the prosecution of war crimes in Asia” and that “the military tribunal in Khabarovsk did not achieve its goals” [15].

Fortunately, most Western researchers do not stoop to such russophobic conclusions when analyzing the Khabarovsk trial. The leading encyclopedic publications like Britannica, Encyclopedia and Wikipedia do not contain any dubious conclusions and the Khabarovsk Tribunal “despite the strong ideological tone and many obvious shortcomings, such as the lack of international participation, found that the Japanese army prepared and used bacteriological weapons and that Japanese researchers conducted cruel experiments on people” and that “the trial, together with the evidence presented to the court, and its main conclusions, which turned out to be surprisingly accurate, they were rejected as communist propaganda and were completely ignored in the West until the 1980s”[16].

Source: Вестник ЦИМО в АТР. № 6. 2021

Translated by Kalinichenko Angelina

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