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In late May, a 24-year-old U.S. Navy sailor at the Yokosuka Navy Base in Kanagawa Prefecture was arrested for drunk driving after bumping his car into another outside the base, slightly injuring a child inside the vehicle that was hit.

Under an April accord concerning the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement, the U.S. military reportedly demanded that Japanese police allow a military representative to be present during the sailor’s interrogation.

Under the accord, the U.S. military, which reportedly views Japan’s criminal justice system as short on human rights, is allowed to have a command representative present during interrogations of military personnel suspected of committing serious crimes.

Kanagawa Prefectural Police, however, did not grant U.S. representation, on grounds that drunk driving does not constitute a serious crime.

Both Japanese police and the U.S. military have refused to comment on the case, which appears to once again highlight complications involving the U.S. military presence in Japan and the treatment of U.S. service members accused of crimes committed off base and off duty.

Under SOFA, the U.S. is not required to hand over service members suspected of crimes until they are indicted by Japanese prosecutors.

This has inconvenienced Japanese investigators, who usually try to collect all evidence before charges are filed, especially confessions.

But after the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen in Okinawa in 1995, the U.S. agreed to hand over service members suspected of committing serious crimes, including murder and rape, before charges are filed as a gesture of “sympathetic consideration.”

Some experts say the April agreement is unfair to Japanese and other foreign suspects because only U.S. military personnel are granted the privilege of having U.S. officials present during interrogations. Japan’s judicial system does not allow lawyers to be present during police questioning. In America, such a presence is a constitutional right, as is the right to remain silent.

“To the eyes of Okinawans, this appears as nothing more than the Japanese government again showing favoritism toward the U.S.,” said Seiken Akamine, a Japanese Communist Party member of the House of Representatives and a native of Naha, the capital of Okinawa Prefecture.

“Local police officers view the presence of a U.S. military representative as an obstacle to interrogations, and we are concerned that the new agreement might thwart justice for residents living near U.S. bases,” he said.

Justice Ministry officials said, however, that the agreement is not aimed at protecting U.S. service members, and instead is a way to expedite investigative cooperation between Japan and the U.S. military and to ensure interrogations go smoothly.

Washington had initially demanded the presence of U.S. lawyers, but Japan only agreed to the presence of U.S. command representatives, ostensibly on the side of investigators.

“We don’t view the (new) system as overly protective of U.S. military personnel,” said a senior official of the ministry’s Criminal Affairs Bureau. “We also don’t believe the U.S. military insisted on the agreement because it thinks our criminal system is problematic from a human rights perspective.”

A representative of the U.S. Forces, Japan, said U.S. command representatives will sit in on interrogations as part of their “many and varied responsibilities associated with the criminal justice system.”

But in its 2000 background document on U.S. SOFAs with nations hosting American bases, the U.S. Department of Defense said the accords are “vital means by which the Department of Defense carries out its policy directive to protect, (to) the maximum extent possible, the rights of United States personnel who may be subjected to criminal trial by foreign courts and imprisonment in foreign prisons.”

The document also says military commanders are responsible for ensuring U.S. service members “receive fair trials under all circumstances.” The “fair trial” safeguards include the right of the accused to be tried without unreasonable delay and to be protected from being forced to confess to a crime as a result of torture, threat or violence, it says.

The Justice Ministry official declined to say whether such apparent exceptional treatment of U.S military criminal suspects could run counter to the constitutional equality of all people, but added that Japan, by having a foreign military with police authority, is in an “exceptional” situation in the first place.

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