SOFA changes are topic of U.S.-Japan talks
If a U.S. servicemember is accused of a crime in Japan, when should he or she be handed over to Japanese authorities?
And when being questioned by those authorities, should that servicemember be allowed to have an attorney present, something not required by Japanese law?
Those are key issues likely to be on the table this week when U.S. and Japanese officials start talks in Tokyo about how to handle American troops charged with felony crimes while stationed in Japan.
The talks come in the wake of the arrest of Lance Cpl. Jose W. Torres, a Marine accused of raping a 19-year-old Okinawan woman May 25.
Under the status of forces agreement between the United States and Japan, U.S. military authorities need not turn over suspects until a Japanese court issues an indictment.
But a special arrangement between the two countries provides for the early handover of servicemembers accused of “heinous” crimes, such as rape.
Torres, 21, was turned over to Japanese police June 18 under that arrangement.
Some Okinawans have called for immediate handover of any U.S. servicemember charged with any crime.
Okinawa officials, saying that Americans should be treated the same in the Japanese legal system as Japanese citizens, are asking for immediate control of Americans charged with any felony.
But some Americans critical of SOFA argue it should ensure U.S. servicemembers have some of the same rights they would have under the American judicial system.
For instance, a suspect should be allowed to have a lawyer present during questioning, they say.
Tough negotiations are ahead, predicted Hatsuhisa Takashima, director-general for press and public relations for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“The government of Japan will thoroughly discuss the issue with the U.S. representatives and will make an utmost effort to solve the issue within 45 days,” Takashima said. “There are differences between the judicial systems of the two countries. Bearing the differences in mind, it is important for us to find a mutually acceptable solution to the issue.
“The presence of defense counsel during questioning is not provided for in the Japanese legal system. Whether or not this infringes on the human rights of servicemembers will be the focal point of the talks.”
American attorney Michael Griffith has been calling on officials to allow a suspect’s lawyer to be present during questioning ever since the 1995 rape and abduction of a 12-year-old Okinawa girl by two Marines and a Navy medic.
Griffith, who specializes in handling criminal cases involving Americans overseas, characterized the Japanese system as allowing what amounts to torture: keeping suspects in isolation for up to 21 days without benefit of counsel.
The intense interrogation process usually results in confessions, Griffith said, arguing that, consequently, more than 95 percent of all cases presented for indictment wind up in convictions.
The family of another Marine charged with a sex crime on Okinawa is vowing to keep pressure on U.S. officials to demand SOFA changes.
Raymond “Buck” Brown, the brother of Maj. Michael Brown, on trial in Naha District Court for an alleged attempted assault last November, says SOFA currently “forces our military to hand over our men and women in uniform accused of crimes to a system in which they automatically relinquish the basic rights they are guaranteed as citizens of the United States.”
He said he was pleased to hear about the coming talks in Tokyo.
“We have been calling for the suspension of the criminal procedures within the SOFA, specifically in Okinawa, until they can be changed to protect the rights of U.S. servicemen and until Japan changes their criminal procedures to ensure that Okinawa cannot abuse the terms of the SOFA,” Brown says on his Web site www.majorbrown.org, set up to defend his brother.
But Brown said he is concerned American representatives will instead make concessions.
Okinawa officials, in particular, are pressuring Tokyo to insist on having more control of U.S. servicemembers.
— Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.