Japanese grow impatient, demand Washington hand over U.S. sergeant suspected in rape
TOKYO (AP) – Japanese officials grew impatient Wednesday, pressing the United States to hand over an American serviceman suspected of rape, fearing delays could enflame already strong emotions among residents of Okinawa.
Okinawan police were forced to wait for a second day Wednesday as Washington continued to mull whether Timothy Woodland, a 24-year-old Air Force sergeant based on the island’s Kadena Air Base, should be released to their custody.
Police obtained an arrest warrant on Monday for Woodland, whom they accuse of raping an Okinawan woman in a parking lot at a popular tourist area last week.
But they have not been able to arrest him because of an agreement under which active-duty military suspects generally remain under U.S. jurisdiction until they are formally charged. In Japan, formal charges are often filed after the arrest has been made.
The Pentagon said it had no comment Wednesday about its internal deliberations about Woodland. On Tuesday, Rear Adm. Craig Quigley, a Pentagon spokesman, said military officials were still working closely with the Japanese authorities.
”There are many issues involved here,” Quigley said. ”We’ve got to weigh them carefully and no final decision has been made.”
The U.S.-Japan agreement, which outlines the status of the nearly 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan, has often been a source of friction in the past.
On Wednesday, a few dozen students protested peacefully outside the air base, forcing officials to close the base’s busiest gate for an hour. It was the second protest outside the gate in as many days.
Okinawa’s governor, who has called for revision of the pact on criminal suspects, met with officials in Tokyo and said he wanted Woodland turned over immediately.
”We are very disappointed that we have not been able to have the suspect transferred to our jurisdiction,” Gov. Keiichi Inamine said in a statement. ”We strongly request that the suspect be turned over as soon as possible.”
In Tokyo, Chief Cabinet spokesman Yasuo Fukuda also expressed concern.
”If it takes much longer, we may have to ask for an explanation,” he said.
America’s new ambassador to Japan, former Sen. Howard Baker, stressed in an arrival speech Tuesday that Washington was committed to cooperating with Japanese authorities. Baker met with Japanese officials Wednesday, and said he is doing all he can to see that a decision will be reached ”as soon as possible,” according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
But U.S. Embassy official Richard Christianson late Wednesday told Ichiro Fujisaki, chief of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s North American division, that the United States did not wish to rush its investigation because the suspect has maintained that he is innocent, according to national broadcaster NHK television.
Christianson said a handover before indictment may violate Woodland’s rights, the report said. U.S. Embassy officials could not be reached early Thursday for comment.
Woodland, who has denied raping the woman, has been questioned by Okinawan police daily but has then been allowed to return to his on-base residence. Only once before has the U.S. military transferred a serviceman to Japanese custody prior to the filing of charges – in 1996, when an American was arrested and later convicted of attempted murder near Nagasaki on the mainland.
Some 26,000 U.S. troops are stationed on the southern island of Okinawa, and residents have long expressed concerns over crowding and the danger of military-related accidents.
But the brutal rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three American servicemen in 1995 brought long-simmering anger over crime to a boil, setting off the largest anti-base protests in Japan in decades. The protests led to the decision to allow military suspects in major crimes to be turned over prior to the filing of charges, if Washington deemed such a handover appropriate.
Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka said U.S. officials have been in contact with her frequently, but added that they wanted to be sure Woodland’s rights would not be violated.
”Concern over human rights is very serious in the United States,” she said. But she added: ”We cannot let this drag on.”
Newspapers in Tokyo on Wednesday also began to take a more critical view of Washington’s handling of the case. One called for a review of the pact governing the troops here, the Status of Forces Agreement.
”It is time to change this agreement,” said an editorial in the national Mainichi newspaper.
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