TOKYO — Legal protections for some U.S. military base workers in Japan could be cut back in reaction to a spate of high-profile arrests that have sparked mass protests and threatened U.S. base relocation efforts.
U.S. and Japanese officials announced plans Tuesday to restrict some categories of workers covered by the 1960 Status of Forces Agreement, which limits Japanese authority over U.S. troops and others in certain circumstances.
Currently, the agreement applies to U.S. military personnel and dependents in Japan, as well as certain U.S. citizens working at military bases.
Local activists have renewed calls for revising the agreement after the arrest in May of a U.S. base worker in Okinawa on charges of raping and murdering a 20-year-old Japanese woman who was walking near her home.
That arrest came just two months after a Navy sailor was charged with raping a Japanese woman in a hotel in Naha, Okinawa’s capital. More recently, a U.S. sailor was arrested on drunk-driving charges after she was accused of crashing into two other cars while driving the wrong way on a major highway in Okinawa; two Japanese citizens were hospitalized.
About half the 54,000 U.S. troops based in Japan are stationed in Okinawa, a key bastion of U.S. military power in the Pacific and a focus of a U.S. “rebalance” from Europe to Asia.
Anti-base activists have long complained about crime, noise and congestion associated with the heavy U.S. military presence in Okinawa. The recent arrests helped spark large protests and have held up negotiations to relocate an important U.S. Marine Corps air base on Okinawa.
The Status of Forces Agreement — commonly known as SOFA — provides U.S. authorities with primary jurisdiction for investigating and prosecuting crimes committed on U.S. bases or by SOFA members while on official duty off base. About 9,400 U.S. citizens work at U.S. bases and military facilities in Japan, according to U.S. Forces Japan.
U.S. authorities in recent years have agreed to give “favorable consideration” to Japanese requests to interview or prosecute those suspected of breaking Japanese law.
The suspects in each of the recent rape and drunk-driving cases were arrested by Japanese police and have remained in Japanese custody. U.S. authorities have pledged to cooperate fully in those cases and have not sought to invoke the SOFA agreement.
The new measures announced Tuesday would create several categories of base workers specifically covered by the SOFA agreement — for example, government employees sent to Japan for the purpose of working at a U.S. base. Those whose residency in Japan is not necessarily related to their base work would be excluded from SOFA coverage.
The suspect arrested in the Okinawa rape-murder case is a 32-year-old former Marine who was working as a civilian contractor at a U.S. airbase. He reportedly is married to a Japanese national, though his residency status is not known.
In general, Japanese law provides less robust legal protections for individuals accused of crimes than U.S. law. For example, suspects in Japan in general can be held for up to 23 days without formal charges and can be questioned, at least initially, without the presence of a lawyer.
The agreement Tuesday was announced after a meeting between Japan’s defense and foreign ministers, the top U.S. military commander in Japan, and U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy.
“The SOFA is very clear — people who commit crimes in Japan, are subject to arrest by Japanese police and prosecution by Japanese authorities,” Lt. Gen. John Dolan, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, said in a statement released after the meeting. “In addition, SOFA status allows for the entire range of disciplinary measures available under U.S. laws and regulations.”
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