Lucie Blackman's father faces suspected killer

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The father of murdered British woman Lucie Blackman, whose disappearance gripped Japan three years ago, came face to face with her alleged killer in court today.

Ms Blackman, a 21-year-old former British Airways flight attendant, was working as a hostess in a Tokyo bar when she went missing in July 2000 after telling a friend she was going on a drive with a customer who promised to buy her a mobile phone.

Her dismembered body was found in a cave seven months later near a beachside condominium belonging to a Japanese real estate developer, who is on trial for her rape and murder.

Her father, who led the hunt for his missing daughter and kept the case in the public eye by enlisting the support of Japanese media and British politicians, returned to Japan this week to attend a hearing at which he saw her suspected killer - Joji Obara - in person for the first time.

"I was expecting to have a sort of nervous reaction," Mr Blackman told reporters after attending the session with his daughter Sophie, aged 23, and his partner Jo Burr, 42. "The difficulty we were expecting to feel faded very quickly."

Obara, who has also been accused of assaulting other foreign women he met at exclusive Tokyo clubs, went on trial in December 2000 and faces three years to life in prison. He has pleaded innocent to all charges against him. He is charged with the abduction of Ms Blackman as well as rape resulting in death, and the disposal of her body.

But legal proceedings were suspended for a year after his defense team stepped down in October 2001, and a court spokesman said today that it was not clear how long the case will last.

"It's quite slow and arduous," said Blackman, from Sevenoaks, Kent. "We're hoping by this time next year we should be getting to the end of the trial."

Lucie's murder focused Japan's attention on the vulnerability of the many foreign women who come to this country hoping to make money as bar hostesses.

Mr Blackman said he was encouraged to see his daughter's case, which faded from public memory here, moving forward.

"It's very good to see the judicial system taking place," he said, adding he planned to return. "Absolutely, definitely, we'll be coming back."

Yesterday father and daughter revisited the cave where police dug up Lucie's remains, laying a rose and pouring champagne.

The visit to Japan comes just months after Michael Hills, aged 60, from Waterloo, central London, was jailed for three-and-a-half years for conning Mr Blackman out of £15,000 during the search for his daughter.

In 2000 he had told Mr Blackman - at the time desperate for news of his daughter - that he had contacts in the "Japanese underworld" who could help find her.