Yomitan residents want soldier accused of hit-and-run turned over Japan protesters seek SOFA change
By Chiyomi Sumida, Stars and Stripes
Pacific edition, Wednesday, December 16, 2009
CAMP FOSTER — Yomitan residents rallied Sunday, demanding a U.S. soldier suspected in a fatal hit-and-run be turned over to Japanese authorities immediately.
Rally organizers claim about 1,500 residents gathered near Torii Station, urging both governments to expedite the investigation of the accident and to change the status of forces agreement.
The body of a 66-year-old Yomitan man was found Nov. 7 in bushes by the side of a village road. Three days later, a 27-year-old staff sergeant assigned to Torii Station was identified as the driver of a car that police suspect hit the man.
The soldier, however, refused questioning by Okinawa police after three sessions, claiming that a statement he gave them during an initial question was mistranslated.
"The service-member has fled into the military base, taking advantage of the status of forces agreement," said a protest resolution that was to be submitted to the Tokyo government.
The resolution called for a change in the SOFA, which allows for the U.S. military to retain custody prior to indictment of any service-member not arrested by Japanese police off base. The soldier, who lives in Yomitan, has been restricted to Torii Station pending the outcome of the investigation into the incident.
"While the suspect has been long identified, why don’t police ask for his custody?" Yomitan Mayor Keizo Yasuda, an organizer of the rally, said Sunday. Sunday’s protest continues Okinawa officials’ push to have the soldier turned over to Japan prior to indictment. The Okinawa Prefectural Assembly passed a nonbinding resolution Dec. 6 advocating such a move.
Yasuda said he plans to visit U.S. Forces Japan headquarters at Yokota Air Base, the U.S. Embassy and Japanese government agencies in Tokyo next week.
Under the agreement, Japan is required to formally inform the military of the crime. After making the notification, Japan has 20 days to press charges, after which they can take custody of a suspect. As of Monday evening, no charges had been filed. Japanese police have said the soldier’s refusal to be questioned has slowed its investigation.
After a spate of high-profile crimes on Okinawa in 1995, the two countries agreed that the U.S. may consider early transfer of suspects in the case of heinous crimes, such as murder, rape or arson.
The soldier’s defense attorney, Toshimitsu Takaesu, said Monday he believed the 1995 "gentlemen’s agreement" would not apply to his client because he’d likely be charged with vehicular manslaughter, which isn’t considered a heinous crime.