HONOLULU (AP) — A man arrested while blocking telescope construction crews on a Hawaii mountain was acquitted Friday after a trial that was conducted in Hawaiian.
Kahookahi Kanuha was among dozens of protesters arrested during attempts to resume construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea. One of the reasons protesters oppose the $1.4 billion project is that many Native Hawaiians consider the mountain sacred.
Kanuha's case had been postponed because he insisted on defending himself in the language he's most comfortable speaking. The trial went forward Friday with a Hawaiian interpreter. Judge Barbara Takase found him not guilty of obstructing.
County prosecutors didn't immediately return phone calls seeking comment on the verdict.
The prosecution called two witnesses, a state Department of Land and Natural Resources official and the officer who arrested Kanuha.
Because Kanuha didn't have an attorney for the case, he cross-examined the witnesses in Hawaiian. The interpreter translated the questions and the witnesses answered in English.
Even though Hawaiian is one of the state's official languages, court cases are primarily conducted in English, with interpreters provided for those who speak other languages.
According to the most recent Census data available for 2009-2013, 5.7 percent of the state's residents spoke Hawaiian at home.
Kanuha didn't present any witnesses or evidence in his defense. Instead he gave a speech in Hawaiian describing his reasons for being on the mountain that day in June when construction crews retreated from the mountain after encountering hundreds of protesters and large boulders blocking the road.
"I was there to prevent desecration and it's a traditional and customary practice," he said, describing his testimony. "I recited my genealogy...showing that I do have a genealogical connection to these people and that place. My ancestors recognized and revered this place as someplace sacred."
Telescope construction has been on hold since April, when protesters— including Kanuha— were arrested. The state Supreme Court invalidated the project's permit to build on conservation land, ruling in December that the state Board of Land and Natural Resources should not have issued the permit before a hearings officer reviewed a petition by a group challenging the project's approval. The court sent the matter back for a new contested case hearing.
Telescope officials haven't indicated whether they will pursue a new hearing.
Kanuha has a court hearing later this month for his April arrest. He has an attorney for that case. He said he'll ask his lawyer to have the charge dismissed in light of Friday's verdict. Two other defendants also requested trials in Hawaiian.
Kanuha, who attended Hawaiian-immersion schools, said another reason he pushed for the trial to be conducted in Hawaiian, even though he speaks English, is to highlight that the movement to revitalize the Hawaiian language is connected to the fight to protect Mauna Kea from desecration.
Most of Kanuha's words during his trial were in Hawaiian, he said. "I may have spoken two sentences in English," once when he wanted to clarify how the interpreter phrased one of his questions and another time inadvertently in response to a question in English.
Follow Jennifer Sinco Kelleher at http://www.twitter.com/JenHapa. Her work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/jennifer-sinco-kelleher.