A Japanese researcher charged with industrial espionage in the United States said in court Wednesday that his actions did not constitute spying and that he should not be extradited to the U.S.
The Tokyo High Court, examining whether to extradite Takashi Okamoto, heard opinions from Okamoto himself, his lawyers and prosecutors.
Okamoto, 43, was charged in May 2001 in the U.S. with stealing genetic material on Alzheimer’s disease developed by the Learner Research Institute at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, while he was working as researcher in July 1999.
He returned to Japan before being indicted, prompting the U.S. to request his extradition in March 2002.
Okamoto stands accused of taking DNA, cell line reagents and other research materials on Alzheimer’s disease from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation.
He is thought to have briefly entrusted the stolen items with his alleged accomplice before sneaking them out of the U.S. to Japan for the benefit of the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (Riken), where he worked after leaving the foundation.
During Wednesday’s session, Okamoto, while admitting taking and destroying DNA samples from the foundation, claimed his actions were an attempt to obstruct the research of a subordinate Japanese researcher who refused to follow his instructions.
Okamoto further claimed that he was of the understanding that, as head of the laboratory, the samples belonged to him. He said he thought he had the right to do what he liked with them, denying any intent to commit industrial espionage.
His lawyers stated that Okamoto should not be handed over, because Japan had no law against industrial espionage at the time he was charged.
The extradition treaty between Japan and the U.S. stipulates that the alleged offense must violate laws in both countries.
The Justice Ministry earlier stated that Okamoto’s actions constituted theft in Japan, leading the ministry to support his extradition. But his lawyers strongly objected, quoting a recent statement by Michio Sato, a House of Councilors member and legal expert.
“Charges of industrial espionage and theft are fundamentally different,” the lawyers quoted Sato as saying.
“Handing him over to the U.S. in this case would be like arrest on a different charge. It cannot be allowed from a humanitarian point of view.”
Okamoto’s lawyers further pointed out that, based on written opinions by specialists and comments from other researchers who worked at the foundation, the DNA in question had no value.
Lawyers added that Okamoto’s conduct was based on a traditional practice among Japanese researchers, where it is perceived that research materials belonged to individuals and not to an organization.
But even among American researchers, it is common practice to trade materials such as DNA without going through formalities, they claimed.
Prosecutors said, however, that Okamoto’s case meets the conditions for extradition.
The court must reach a decision within two months of Feb. 2, the date the Justice Ministry asked to examine the U.S. extradition request. If the extradition is upheld, Okamoto will be handed over within 30 days to the U.S., where he could face a maximum imprisonment of 15 years and a fine of up to $500,000.
According to the Justice Ministry, since the bilateral extradition treaty took effect in 1980, Japan has not rejected any extradition request from the U.S.
There have been eight Japanese nationals handed to the U.S. thus far, but no Americans have been turned over to Japan, they said.
Okamoto’s alleged accomplice, former University of Kansas professor Hiroaki Serizawa, was also charged with industrial espionage for helping Okamoto cover up the theft. His charges were dropped through a plea bargain in which he pleaded guilty to perjury and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution.