Kuril islands: strategic chain at heart of Russia-Japan dispute

Hundreds of Russians protest against a feared giveaway of strategic islands to Japan, two days before a key summit between the countries' leaders in Moscow. (AFP)
Updated 22 January 2019

Kuril islands: strategic chain at heart of Russia-Japan dispute

  • Soviet troops seized the Kuril Islands from Japan in the final days of World War II
  • The islands are rich in hot springs and minerals and rare metals such as rhenium

MOSCOW: Called the Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan, a string of volcanic islands are at the heart of a feud between the two countries that has prevented them signing a formal World War II peace treaty.
Talks stalled for decades due to Japan’s claim to the four strategic islands seized by the Soviet army in the final days of the war.
Here are some key facts about the Kuril islands:

• The disputed islands of Iturup (Etorofu in Japanese), Kunashir (Kunashiri), Shikotan and Habomai lie at their closest point just a few kilometers (miles) off the north coast of Hokkaido in Japan.
They are the southernmost islands in a volcanic chain that separates the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean.
They are located to the southeast of the Russian island of Sakhalin and are administratively part of the same region, although Tokyo considers them part of its Hokkaido prefecture and “illegally occupied by Russia.”

• Russian Empress Catherine the Great claimed sovereignty over the Kuril islands in 1786 after her government declared they were discovered by “Russian explorers” and therefore “undoubtedly must belong to Russia.”
In the first treaty between tsarist Russia and Japan in 1855, the frontier between the two countries was drawn just north of the four islands closest to Japan.
Twenty years later in 1875, a new treaty handed Tokyo the entire chain, in exchange for Russia gaining full control of the island of Sakhalin.
Japan seized back control of the southern half of Sakhalin after its crushing defeat of Moscow in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War.

• The Kuril islands have been back at the center of a dispute between Moscow and Tokyo since Soviet troops invaded them in the final days of World War II.
The USSR only entered into war with Japan on August 9, 1945, just after the United States had dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
The Soviet troops completed the takeover of the islands after Japan’s general surrendered later that month.

Russia argues that then US president Franklin Roosevelt promised Soviet leader Joseph Stalin he could take back the Kurils in exchange for joining the war against Japan when they met at the Yalta conference in February 1945 at which the Allied leaders divided up the post-war world.
The Soviet capture of the islands has since prevented Moscow and Tokyo from signing a formal peace treaty to end the war, despite repeated attempts over the past 70 years to reach an agreement.
In 1956, Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev first offered to give Japan the two smallest islands, Shikotan and Habomai, in exchange for signing a peace treaty but dropped the idea after Tokyo struck a military alliance with the United States.

Rich in hot springs and rare metals
Strategically, control of the islands ensures Russia has year-round access to the Pacific Ocean for its Pacific Fleet of warships and submarines based in Vladivostok, as the strait between Kunashir and Iturup does not freeze over in winter.
Russia has military bases on the archipelago and has deployed missile systems on the islands.
The islands’ current population is around 20,000 people.
After numerous meetings over the past few years between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin, they have launched various economic projects on the islands in areas such as the farming of fish and shellfish, wind-generated energy, and tourism, though Moscow says investment is still meagre.
Since 2017, the two countries have also agreed on charter flights for Japanese former inhabitants to visit family graves there.
The islands are rich in hot springs and minerals and rare metals such as rhenium, which is used in the production of supersonic aircraft.

Women cleared of defamation in French sexual misconduct case

In this Sept. 21, 2014 file photo, Denis Baupin, a prominent Green Party member and former Paris city official, takes part in a climate change demonstration in Paris. (AP)
Updated 20 April 2019

Women cleared of defamation in French sexual misconduct case

  • The court considered that the women and journalists acted in good faith, which is a defense for defamation under French law

PARIS: A Paris court has dismissed a defamation case against six women who accused a former French lawmaker of sexual misconduct and the journalists who reported the allegations.
The court on Friday ordered Denis Baupin to pay 1,000 euros ($1,120) in damages to each of the 12 people he sued.
In May 2016, investigative website Mediapart and radio station France Inter published and broadcast accounts from 14 women who alleged Baupin had groped, sexted or otherwise harassed them.
The prominent Green Party member resigned as vice president of the lower House of Parliament but denied wrongdoing and launched a defamation lawsuit against the six women who were identified in the reports, some witnesses and journalists.
The case had been under particular scrutiny in the wake of the #MeToo movement.
Women rights activists have seen it as a test of French women’s ability to speak out when they think powerful men have sexually harassed or abused them — and how journalists can report it.
The court considered that the women and journalists acted in good faith, which is a defense for defamation under French law.
In addition, it considered France Inter and Mediapart respected their additional obligations: the legitimacy of journalists’ goals in producing a story, demonstrating an absence of personal animosity, prudence and balance, and the quality of the investigation.
Most of the women who spoke about Baupin’s alleged behavior from 1998 to 2013 were fellow Green Party members, and outrage greeted their descriptions.
Four filed criminal complaints for sexual harassment at the time. A nine-month judicial investigation ended without charges. Prosecutors said the three-year statute of limitations had expired, but released a statement saying the women’s “measured, constant statements” and witness corroboration created a set of facts to support allegations of actions that “may for some of them be classified as criminal.”
The cleared women greeted the ruling with tears of joy and relief.
Lawyer Claire Moleon, a lawyer for one of them, told The Associated Press that “this is a great victory.”
“This is a very strong signal given by justice. It’s putting an end to a move that we were noticing to use defamation lawsuits to put more pressure on the victims of sexual harassment and sexual abuse,” she said.
Moleon stressed that Baupin’s order to pay damages to the people he sent on trial shows that “sanctions apply” to such cases.
During the February trial, women had described, often with lots of emotion, their alleged harassment through text messages and inappropriate comments, and in some cases, alleged sexual assault attempts.
Some former officials of France’s Green Party also testified in court, saying they should have acted earlier on reports of sexual misconduct. They stressed that the #MeToo movement has raised their awareness.
Baupin’s lawyer Emmanuel Pierrat, had argued his client did nothing illegal and had filed a defamation lawsuit to “fully clear his name.”
Baupin had decided not to attend the trial.