Japan and the United States on Wednesday began negotiations over the conditions under which American servicemen suspected of crimes in this country are questioned by Japanese authorities before indictment.
Foreign Ministry officials say the talks will likely not produce immediate results, given the sharp differences between the two sides.
“I do not think the two countries will reach an agreement during the two-day talks,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hatsuhisa Takashima.
The key point is whether U.S. military personnel stationed overseas who commit crimes outside military bases should be exposed to the legal system of the host nation or be granted the same rights guaranteed by American laws.
Japanese negotiators include Yasumasa Nagamine, the Foreign Ministry’s deputy director general of North American Affairs Bureau, and officials from the Justice Ministry and the National Police Agency.
The U.S. team is led by Mary Tighe, the U.S. Defense Department’s principal director for Asian and Pacific Affairs, and Brian Mohler, Japan director for the State Department.
The talks were triggered by the recent arrest of a U.S. Marine officer who was handed over to Japanese authorities after allegedly raping and assaulting a Japanese woman in Okinawa Prefecture in May.
While the U.S. agreed to a pre-indictment handover of the suspect, it has been demanding that a lawyer and an interpreter be present when Japanese investigators question Lance Cpl. Jose Torres. The U.S. judicial system allows lawyers to be present during interrogations.
Japan is reluctant to grant such rights to U.S. military servicemen since suspects are not guaranteed those rights in this country.
During the talks, Tokyo is expected to urge Washington to expand the scope of criminal acts for which U.S. servicemen can be handed over to Japanese authorities before indictment, which is now effectively limited to murder and rape.
Under the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement, the U.S. military is not required to hand over its personnel suspected of crimes to Japanese authorities until they are indicted.
Following the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three servicemen in 1995, however, Washington agreed to give “sympathetic consideration” to the handover of suspects in heinous crimes.
Last year, the U.S. military rejected Japan’s requests that a suspect in an attempted rape case be handed over prior to indictment.
Senior officials of the Foreign Ministry said it would be a “miracle” if both sides reach an agreement during the two-day talks.
“We may have to consider revising the criminal procedure law,” said one official, adding that such a decision is highly political and is beyond the scope of bureaucrats.
The government hopes to reach a compromise without making any revision to SOFA, which governs the activities of the U.S. military in Japan.
Despite requests from the Okinawa Prefectural Government and some opposition parties, officials of the Foreign Ministry, the SOFA liaison, are reluctant to amend SOFA, saying the move may affect the stability of the Japan-U.S. alliance.
“What if the obviously difficult negotiation takes many years (to conclude) and sways the Japan-U.S. alliance?” the official said on condition of anonymity. “It may be all right if trade negotiations end up in a rupture, but not on SOFA talks.”
The official pointed out that the Japan-U.S. SOFA is the only bilateral status-of-forces accord in which the U.S. has agreed to such pre-indictment handovers of its military personnel.
However, other host nations have negotiated other revisions.
The German-NATO treaty, for example, was drastically amended in 1993 and now stipulates that Germany’s domestic laws, including its stringent environment-protection criteria, must be obeyed even inside the country’s U.S. military bases. The revision also bans, in principle, low-altitude flights and nighttime training flights.
The South Korea-U.S. SOFA was revised in 2001, after nearly six years of negotiations. It now contains a clause obliging U.S. forces to respect South Korea’s environment-related laws.
The revision further stipulates that South Korean authorities can take into custody — at the point of indictment — any U.S. military personnel suspected of any of 12 designated crimes, such as murder, kidnapping and arson.
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