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CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The U.S.-Japan Joint Committee in Tokyo agreed Friday to allow U.S. officials to be present during the questioning of American servicemembers accused of crimes in Japan.

The panel also agreed to allow consideration of the immediate turnover of felony suspects to Japanese authorities, said Hatsuhisa Takashima, director-general for press and public relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The talks which began in June last year reached an agreement at a meeting of the U.S.-Japan Joint Committee held Friday in Tokyo,” he said. “Allowing the presence of a U.S. military official during questioning of military members suspected of criminal acts was agreed to.

“This agreement makes it possible for U.S. military authorities to continue their own investigations when suspects are handed over before indictment.”

Both governments also agreed to broaden the scope of cases in which the pre-indictment custody of suspects can be transferred to Japanese police. In 1995, the two governments agreed to consider the early transfer of servicemembers accused of such “heinous” crimes as rape and murder.

Under Friday’s agreement, the phrase “other cases” was added, Takashima said.

“They agreed that ‘other cases’ are all the cases that Japanese government has an interest in,” he said.

The agreement ended 10 months of negotiations that focused on fine-tuning the way the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement is implemented.

The talks began last June, following a rape case involving a Marine on Okinawa, but were suspended in August after the two sides failed to agree on American demands that a U.S. official be present whenever suspects were grilled by police and prosecutors.

Japanese officials, on the other hand, wanted the agreement changed to allow for the pre-indictment handover of all suspects charged with crimes.

Under the Japanese legal system, suspects do not receive the right to have lawyers present during interrogations. And under the current SOFA, servicemembers accused of crimes are not surrendered to Japanese authorities until they’re indicted.

The only exceptions are for servicemembers arrested by Japanese police outside American bases or for persons suspected of rape or murder.

Friday’s decision followed a series of “unofficial” talks between the two sides in Tokyo and Washington.

Under the agreement reached Friday, U.S. officials would be considered as aides to the investigation, not a suspect’s representative, thus getting around the fact that Japanese citizens do not have the right to legal representation during questioning.

But their presence would be allowed only if the suspect has been turned over to Japanese custody, Takashima said.

Also, any early turnover of suspects in military custody would have to be requested by local authorities and acted on by the U.S.-Japan Joint Committee.

U.S. Forces Japan officials did not return repeated phone calls seeking comment early Friday evening. However, according to a Reuters report, an unattributed USFJ statement read, “It is expected that today’s agreement will strengthen investigative cooperation between the authorities of Japan and the U.S.”

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