Crimes linked to U.S. forces spur calls for SOFA revision

Kyodo

Allegations that a drunken U.S. airman broke into an apartment in Okinawa and belted a teenager have heightened local calls for the bilateral accord protecting the rights of American service members in Japan to be amended.

The incident occurred less than three weeks after the arrests of two U.S. sailors for allegedly raping a woman in the city of Okinawa. The prefecture has long hosted the bulk of U.S. military facilities and personnel stationed in the country.

Following the sailors’ arrests, the U.S. military in mid-October took the unusual step of introducing a nightly curfew on all personnel at its bases to improve discipline and avoid further damaging incidents. But the airman’s alleged home invasion and assault in the early hours of Friday morning suggests the move has failed to serve its purpose.

The 24-year-old man, who is stationed at the U.S. Kadena Air Base, is believed to be receiving treatment at a hospital on a U.S. base for various injuries, including broken bones, after falling from the third floor of the building housing the apartment he invaded. His identity has been withheld by authorities.

The incident hardly improved sentiment toward U.S. military personnel among Okinawa residents, who were already fuming about Tokyo’s decision to allow Washington to deploy tilt-rotor MV-22 Osprey aircraft to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, despite their questionable safety record and two high profile crashes this year, including a fatal accident in Morocco.

Satoshi Morimoto, who as defense minister oversees bilateral security matters with the United States, attended a meeting of prefectural governors, including Okinawa Gov. Hirokazu Nakaima, at the Prime Minister’s Official Residence on the day of the airman’s alleged home invasion.

“I can’t look the Okinawa governor squarely in the face,” a visibly disturbed Morimoto said during the meeting, avoiding all eye contact with Nakaima. “I am truly sorry and cannot apologize enough.”

“We need assurances of effective measures (from the United States) rather than repeatedly being told discipline is being reinforced,” Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba told the meeting.

On possible steps to stem crimes by U.S. service members, a high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said: “If there had been anything that could have been done, it would have already been taken care of. If you ask if there are any measures other than a curfew, that’s difficult to answer.”

Nakaima issued a statement Friday saying he was “compelled to question the effectiveness” of the curfew. The governor plans to urge both Tokyo and Washington to review the terms of the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement, which sets the jurisdictional parameters within which Japanese authorities can deal with U.S. service personnel.

Nakaima said the treaty has effectively turned Okinawa into “a pocket of extraterritorial jurisdiction.”

In the airman’s case, Okinawa police have not asked the U.S. military to transfer the hospitalized suspect into their custody, arguing there is little likelihood he will flee or destroy evidence.

“U.S. Ambassador to Japan (John) Roos has said (the U.S.) pledged complete cooperation with Japan’s investigation, so there is no need for us to request a custody transfer before an indictment,” Foreign Ministry press secretary Yutaka Yokoi said Friday.

But there have been instances where American personnel have fled to U.S. bases after allegedly committing crimes, making it difficult for Japanese authorities to prosecute them.

Following the rape of a 12-year-old girl by two marines and a U.S. Navy corpsman in Okinawa in 1995, Tokyo and Washington cleared the way for military-linked suspects in serious crimes, including murder and rape, to be transferred to Japanese custody before prosecutors file charges.

But ultimately, it is still left up to the “sympathetic consideration” of U.S. forces whether to acquiesce to such transfer requests.

“The best solution is to close all U.S. bases, but if that is impossible, we are left with no other option than to revise the SOFA agreement,” said Junji Kawano, a municipal assembly member in Nago who fiercely opposes the planned relocation of the Futenma base to his district.

“Investigations will be marred by the agreement if (a suspect) flees to an American base or out of the country,” Kawano said. “Unless the SOFA is revised, we can’t change U.S. troops’ way of thinking — that they can do whatever they want.”