The Tokyo High Court on Monday turned down a request to extradite a researcher to the United States to stand trial on industrial espionage charges, marking Japan’s first rejection of an extradition request from American authorities.
Takashi Okamoto, 43, was charged in Ohio in May 2001 with stealing genetic materials on Alzheimer’s disease developed by the Learner Research Institute at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in July 1999 while he worked there as a researcher.
Okamoto, who had returned to Japan by the time of the indictment, has denied committing industrial espionage.
He was freed Monday. The decision not to extradite him is final because prosecutors cannot appeal the high court decision.
Okamoto “cannot be considered guilty of violating the U.S. economic espionage law,” the high court said, ruling that he can stay in Japan.
Presiding Judge Masaru Suda brushed aside the U.S. charge that Okamoto had acted with the intent of profiting by delivering the materials to Japan’s Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, popularly known as Riken, where he worked after his return from the United States.
It was the first time Japan has rejected an extradition request by a country with which it has an extradition treaty. In the past, Japan received 31 extradition requests, eight of which involved Japanese nationals.
Japan has extradition treaties with the U.S. and South Korea. Tokyo has previously extradited eight people to the U.S.
According to the U.S. indictment, Okamoto took DNA, cell line reagents and other research materials on Alzheimer’s disease from the institute without permission when he left the facility in July 1999, and destroyed other biological materials.
He has also been charged with interstate transport of the materials as well as conspiracy.
Okamoto left the materials with Hiroaki Serizawa, who was an assistant professor at the University of Kansas at the time, before taking them to the government-funded Riken, the U.S. authorities charge.
Serizawa, 42, was also charged with industrial espionage, but U.S. authorities dropped the charges in a plea bargain in which he pleaded guilty to perjury. He was fined in connection with the case in May 2003.
The U.S. requested Okamoto’s extradition in March 2002, and the high court began deliberating the case after prosecutors took him into custody last month — nearly two years after the request was filed.
After Monday’s decision, Reiji Kiyoi, a lawyer representing Okamoto, criticized the prosecutors for being “imprudent” in detaining him and asking the court to examine the extradition request.
Kiyoi said even the U.S. authorities who filed the request “did not fully understand what had taken place.”
He claimed the prosecutors were acting under “political pressures” and should have been more cautious before detaining Okamoto.
“We will hold (the prosecutors) properly accountable,” Kiyoi said, suggesting his client may demand some form of compensation from the government.
During earlier court sessions, prosecutors argued that Okamoto’s extradition was warranted because his alleged crimes correspond to larceny and destruction of property under Japanese law.
Japan does not have criminal code provisions for industrial espionage, and it only sends its citizens to face charges abroad if they have been accused of acts that are also illegal in this country.
Okamoto admitted taking and destroying the genetic materials but claimed his actions were an attempt to obstruct the research of a subordinate Japanese researcher who refused to obey him.
He said it was his understanding that as head of a research team, the samples belonged to him and he had the right to do what he liked with them. Okamoto’s lawyer said the materials had no proprietary value and thus the espionage charges are unwarranted.
In Monday’s ruling, Judge Suda said the court screening of the extradition request was meant to examine, from the standpoint of protecting the human rights of the accused, whether Okamoto would be found guilty in a U.S. court.
“We cannot extradite (Okamoto) unless there is sufficient evidence to prove him guilty,” the judge said.
Okamoto’s account that he took the materials to obstruct the work of his fellow researcher is “convincing,” the judge said. There is also no evidence that his acts brought benefits to Riken, as charged in the U.S. indictment, he added.
The judge said Okamoto is not guilty of interstate transport of stolen property, saying there is no evidence that the samples taken from the institute are worth more than $5,000. The charge cannot stand in the U.S. without this point being proved.
The Japan-U.S. extradition treaty, which took effect in 1980, requires that the crime for which extradition is being sought can be punishable by death or imprisonment of more than one year under the laws of both nations.
Okamoto left the Learner institute in July 1999 after the alleged theft. The next month, he started working at Riken in Wako, Saitama Prefecture.
Okamoto quit Riken in 2001 and started working as a doctor at a hospital in Tanno, a small town in northern Hokkaido with a population of 5,500. After he was taken into custody in February, residents of the town and neighboring municipalities collected signatures from 35,000 people asking authorities not to hand him over to the U.S.
Okamoto hopes to return to the hospital as quickly as possible, his lawyer said.