BANGKOK – A Thai criminal court ruled Thursday that Thailand should extradite a man wanted by Japan for the 1970 hijacking of a Japan Airlines plane by Sept. 10 or set him free.
Yoshimi Tanaka, 51, a former member of the radical leftist group Red Army Faction, told the court on May 16 that he would like to drop his fight against extradition and return to Japan — for the first time in 30 years — to face terrorism charges as soon as possible.
Tanaka’s statement brought his nine-month struggle to an end. He had been fighting extradition since August last year, claiming Japan’s charges against him are politically motivated.
The Thai court said Tanaka is to be extradited in accordance with the 1929 Thai Extradition Law. The ruling indicated the court did not consider the charges against Tanaka to be political.
Tanaka was arrested in Cambodia in March 1996 and eventually handed over to Thailand’s Chonburi Provincial Court, accused of passing counterfeit U.S. bank notes in Thailand.
He was acquitted of the counterfeiting charges last June but arrested again in August to face the extradition hearings.
Thailand has no extradition treaty with Japan, but it agreed to cooperate by asking the criminal court to rule whether it can hand Tanaka over under the 1929 Extradition Act.
Under the extradition law, Tanaka is allowed to appeal the decision within 15 days, otherwise he will be sent to Japan within three months of the court ruling.
The ruling at appeal would be final. However, even without an appeal, it may take about a month for officials of both countries to prepare for Tanaka’s return to Japan.
Upon his return to Tokyo, he is to be arrested on hijacking and terrorism charges. Among the offenses cited by Japan in seeking Tanaka’s extradition are robbery with assault, detaining people illegally, possession of dangerous weapons, obstructing justice and arson.
Last week, he told the Thai court that he made the decision to stop fighting extradition because it may help “my family and friends still residing in North Korea.”
In January, Tanaka admitted to the court that he and eight colleagues hijacked the JAL plane on March 31, 1970, after it left Tokyo’s Haneda airport bound for Fukuoka. The hijacked plane landed in Pyongyang on April 3, 1970.
Sources said Tanaka was pressured by other hijackers of the plane still in North Korea to agree to the extradition. They did not elaborate, but some have suggested the pressure resulted from Pyongyang’s desire to improve relations with the international community, especially Japan, the United States and South Korea.
Responding to questions from Kyodo News late last month, Tanaka said the other hijackers and their families reside in North Korea under political asylum and must follow Pyongyang’s decisions because North Korea could end their asylum and expel them.
“No Japanese should comment on Pyongyang policy, only North Korean people can do so,” he said. “We have no choice but to accept its decisions.”
He added he receives letters from his wife and three daughters, who live in North Korea, twice a year.
Late last month, a Japanese newspaper reported that North Korea was considering expelling the hijacking fugitives and their families.
The idea was said to have come after the U.S. reportedly said the fugitives should be returned to Japan as a condition for removing the North from a U.S. list of states that support terrorism.
Among the nine hijackers who arrived in North Korea in April 1970, four remain in the country along with at least 16 family members.
Throughout his four-year detention in Thailand, Tanaka maintained his opposition to the Japanese government. He said he joined the radical student movement in 1969-1970 because he disagreed with Japan’s stance on the Vietnam War and on university reform. He also opposed allowing the U.S. to set up a naval base in Okinawa, being part of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, and the building of Tokyo’s Narita airport.