NAHA, Okinawa — The Okinawa Bar Association on Tuesday called for revising the U.S.-Japan status of forces agreement to strengthen the rights of U.S. servicemembers accused of crimes.

In an effort to overhaul the 43-year-old SOFA, which governs operation and management of U.S. forces in Japan, the lawyers’ group, at a news conference Tuesday afternoon in Naha, proposed basic changes.

The group wants defendants to have the right to have counsel present while being questioned by police and prosecutors — a change U.S. officials sought but their Japanese counterparts rejected during meetings on the SOFA held earlier this year.

The Okinawa lawyers also want to allow for immediate turnover of Americans covered by the SOFA who are charged with felony crimes, a change Japanese officials seek but U.S. officials have rejected.

Under the present SOFA, the United States retains custody of a SOFA member charged with a crime until a Japanese court indicts that servicemember. An informal “gentlemen’s agreement” allows early handover of persons suspected of murder, rape or arson.

The SOFA talks stalled after the two sides failed to agree on those issues.

The Okinawa lawyers also want to allow videotaping of all interrogation sessions.

“We compiled the draft from purely a legal standpoint,” Tsutomu Arakaki, Okinawa Bar Association chairman, said during the Naha news conference.

“The present agreement lacks provisions that protect the due human rights of SOFA personnel suspected of crimes,” he said. “The present SOFA is obsolete because it was signed in 1960, long before U.S. federal Supreme Court made the Miranda ruling.”

The Miranda ruling upheld the right of suspects to a lawyer and set up today’s U.S. practice of informing criminal suspects of their basic rights, especially the right to counsel, Arakaki said.

During the SOFA talks held last summer and fall in Tokyo, Washington and Honolulu, Japanese officials balked at allowing Americans to have a lawyer present during questioning, arguing it would be a right not granted Japanese citizens. Arakaki said that, too, should be changed. The absence of such rights in Japan “shows how far behind the Japanese judicial system is from the international standard,” he contended.

He argued that changes are crucial to “eliminate the skepticism many people in the United States have concerning Japan’s legal system. We could then be able to obtain support from the United States to make changes in the SOFA that Japan requests.”

Former Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota initiated calls for changing the SOFA. He demanded the immediate hand-over of suspects following a controversial 1995 rape case involving three U.S. servicemembers on Okinawa. His successor, Gov. Keiichi Inamine, started a campaign to urge the rest of Japan to join Okinawa’s efforts to change the bilateral agreement.

Okinawa’s demands go beyond criminal issues. For example, the prefecture also wants to require the U.S. military to conduct environmental cleanups of returned military property.

“The present agreement was made before the rise of an environmental awareness, which started in late 1960 to 1970s,” Arakaki said. “Again, this shows that the present agreement had fundamental defects."

The Bar Association proposal calls for additions to seven clauses in the present document. One would require both governments to reassess the document every 10 years to determine if continued operation of each military installation is necessary.

The lawyers also advocate requiring that both governments ensure divorced American fathers of Amerasian children continue to pay child support when they return to the United States. Payments would be required until the child is 21.

“We hope that our release of this draft proposal will lead to concrete discussions in changing the SOFA,” Arakaki said.

The bar association submitted the proposal to the Okinawa Prefectural Government on Tuesday and plans to distribute copies to municipal and national governments.

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