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NAHA, Okinawa — The U.S.-Japan status of forces agreement, signed 44 years ago, needs a thorough review, Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine said Monday.

Speaking in Naha to about 300 local politicians, scholars, labor union members and citizens attending a Japanese newspaper-sponsored forum, Inamine stressed the importance of revising the agreement to “catch up with time.”

Among changes he seeks is the immediate hand-over of U.S. servicemembers accused of felonies. After the 1995 rape of a local schoolgirl by three servicemembers, the U.S. and Japanese governments worked to improve administering the bilateral agreement. For example, they came to a “gentleman’s agreement” that suspects accused of such “heinous crimes” as murder and rape could be transferred to Japanese custody before indictment, on a case-by-case basis.

But that wasn’t enough, Inamine said Monday.

“Although the U.S. government says that they would give favorable consideration for cases of such vicious crimes, such an ambiguous deal is not appropriate,” he said.

“It should be put in the written form that Japan holds immediate custody of the suspect.”

Inamine also has said he wants the SOFA changed to make the U.S. military responsible for environmental cleanup of returned base property.

Since taking office in 1998, the governor consistently has lobbied both governments for changes in the bilateral agreement. Last year, he visited prefecture counterparts on the Japanese mainland where other U.S. military installations are located, including Tokyo, Kanagawa and Nagasaki, urging them to join him in the campaign.

“Under the present SOFA, the U.S. government has no responsibility for conducting environmental cleanups,” Inamine told the audience at Ryukyu Shimpo Hall.

“For instance, in 1995 when the Onna communication site was returned, mercury which exceeded environmental standard was found in oil sludge,” he said. “The military refused to take the cleanup because it was not their responsibility.”

The sludge was cleaned by the Defense Facilities Administration Agency, the Japanese agency responsible for the bases, he said.

The SOFA was signed 44 years ago, when the environmental issue “was not a major social concern,” he said, stating it was long overdue for an overhaul.

“Making changes to such bilateral agreements is not unprecedented,” the governor said, citing NATO’s revised SOFA Supplementary Agreement in Germany.

“The Bonn supplementary agreement, which was originally signed in 1959, was revised in 1971, and then in 1981 and 1993 again,” he said. “It is being changed almost every 10 years.” Also, Inamine said, the U.S.-South Korean SOFA, which was signed in 1967, was revised in 1991 and again in 2001.

Inamine pledged his continued efforts to push the Diet and the Tokyo government to change the agreement.

During the forum’s following session, five pro-change panelists, including Okinawa City Mayor Masakazu Nakasone, discussed the need to revise the agreement.

Tsutomu Arakaki, Okinawa Bar Association chairman, said Japan’s outdated judicial system was a stumbling block in reaching agreement on criminal procedures, especially the custody issue.

U.S.-Japanese talks started last year but stalled after the two sides failed to agree on suspects’ rights in the early stages of an investigation. U.S. officials pressed for the presence of a lawyer or other military official during interrogations by Japanese police.

But Japanese officials refused to grant such rights — rights that are denied to Japanese citizens.

“The Japanese government persistently rejected the proposal,” Arakaki said. “It is because they have to change the Japanese judicial procedures if they accept such a condition.”

The Japanese system is behind the international standard, he said.

“There is nothing wrong in revising the system to meet the world standard,” he said.

“To change the agreement, it is important to offer a proposed revision to which both the Japanese and American people can agree.”

If that could be done, the efforts of Okinawa to gain other changes would obtain strong public support at home and overseas, he said.

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