Japan’s prime minister demands handover of American serviceman accused of rape on Okinawa
OKINAWA CITY, Japan (AP) – A tug-of-war between Japan and the United States over an American airman accused of rape intensified Thursday, as Tokyo stepped up demands for the suspect’s handover and Okinawans accused Washington of protecting him.
Anger was growing on this small southern island – where the bulk of the 50,000 U.S. troops in Japan are based – over Washington’s indecision on whether to release Air Force sergeant Timothy Woodland to local authorities.
The Okinawa prefectural assembly unanimously adopted a resolution demanding a review of the Status of Forces Agreement, under which active-duty military suspects generally remain under U.S. jurisdiction until they are formally charged.
”Even with a heinous crime such as this, the Americans use the pact as a shield to continue denying our requests for the suspect to be handed over,” the resolution said.
Other resolutions critical of the United States were expected to pass in Okinawa municipal assemblies on Friday, said national broadcaster NHK television.
Many Okinawans expressed disgust at Washington’s insistence that the serviceman’s rights must be respected since he continues to deny the charges. They said the rights of the 20-year-old Japanese victim should take precedence.
Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said the United States is getting close to deciding whether to grant Japan’s request to turn over the suspect before the indictment. ”We’re getting closer all the time, but I don’t have any specifics to announce at this point,” he said.
Quigley indicated the United States is seeking assurances with regard to the suspect’s legal rights in Japanese custody.
”We very clearly understand the desire of the Japanese government to transfer custody,” he said. ”We just need to have a very clear understanding of the conditions under which we would agree to something like that.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi led calls from several top government officials for the U.S. to turn Woodland over. The suspect, stationed at Kadena Air Base, is accused of raping an Okinawan woman June 29 in a parking lot outside a row of trendy bars in Chatan town.
”I hope the United States, understanding emotions here, will make an appropriate decision quickly,” Koizumi told reporters after returning from the United States and Europe.
Defense chief Gen Nakatani warned of ”an escalation of emotions” on Okinawa unless the United States acts soon. And Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka called U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell on Thursday to request a swift handover.
Powell said he is in close consultation with U.S. defense officials over the case. President Bush has expressed regret for the incident.
Woodland has been questioned by police in Okinawa every day since the alleged crime, but he remains under military custody on Kadena. Police say Woodland’s handover would enable them speed up their investigation.
As is customary in Japan, no defense attorney has been present during Woodland’s questioning, according to Okinawa police spokesman Akira Namihira. However, he was provided with an interpreter.
If turned over to Okinawan authorities, Woodland, whose hometown has not been released, would likely be tried in a Japanese court.
He faces several years in a Japanese prison if convicted. Japan’s conviction rate for cases that go to trial is more than 95 percent.
The alleged rape has underscored long-simmering frustrations on Okinawa over the huge U.S. military presence in Japan and the status of the 26,000 American military personnel stationed on the island.
U.S. troops based in Japan and South Korea play a crucial role in providing security for the entire Asia-Pacific region.
Despite U.S. promises to tighten discipline among its troops in Japan, U.S. servicemen have in recent years been accused of a string of sexual attacks on Okinawa, including an incident last year in which a soldier crept into bed with a young girl and molested her.
Huge protests following the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen in 1995 prompted Washington to agree to consider handing over suspects before charges are filed.
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. He was later convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
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