Japan urges US to hand over suspect in rape case

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The Independent Online
Japanese leaders warned of an angry public reaction yesterday as the United States Air Force continued to hold a serviceman suspected of raping a Japanese woman despite repeated requests that he be handed over to local police.</p>"I hope the United States, understanding emotions here, will make an appropriate decision quickly," said Junichiro Koizumi, the Japanese Prime Minister, six days after the alleged rape on the southern island of Okinawa. A warrant was issued on Monday for the arrest of the suspect, Air Force Sergeant Timothy Woodland, aged 24. But so far the American military authorities have made no response to requests for him to be transferred to the Japanese authorities.</p>General Nakatani, Japan's Defence Minister, said in a phone call to the Pentagon yesterday: "We ask the United States to swiftly hand over the American suspect. We ask Washington to take a political decision so as to quickly solve this case. If we prolong solving the crime, this could lead us to a more serious problem."</p>Makiko Tanaka, the Foreign Minister, made the same request to Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State. President George Bush will take part in a decision on whether to hand over the suspect, Mr Powell told Mr Tanaka in a telephone call, a Foreign Ministry official said.</p>Mr Koizumi's government is terrified of a repeat of the events of 1995 when tens of thousands of Okinawans demonstrated against the American presence on their island, after three servicemen gang raped a girl aged 12. Last week's alleged rape involved a woman in her 20s, and early reactions were relatively subdued. But there are now signs of anger at what many in Okinawa regard as the arrogant and dilatory attitude of the military command.</p>Okinawa's prefectural assembly passed a unanimous motion calling for Sergeant Woodland's immediate handover, and demanding the revision of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) which gives legal privileges to American servicemen. "Even with a heinous crime such as this, the Americans use the agreement as a shield to continue denying our requests for the suspect to be handed over."</p>Okinawa is dominated by the American presence â“ 26,000 military personnel on bases that occupy one-fifth of the island. Under the SOFA, military personnel under criminal investigation are entitled to be held on their bases, rather than in Japanese custody, until they are formally charged.</p>After the 1995 rape, this privilege provoked rage on the island, and an agreement was reached by which America would give "favourable consideration" to a request for early custody in cases when serious crimes were suspected. Five years ago, a sailor later convicted of attempted murder was handed over quickly to police in Nagasaki.</p>Sergeant Woodland denies rape and his commanding officers appear reluctant to surrender custody. The alleged rape was in the early hours of last Friday in a car park nearbars frequented by servicemen. Sergeant Woodland says he had sex with the woman, but insists it was consensual. </p>