Marines jailed for rape that strained US links to Japan



Three American servicemen were jailed yesterday for the gang-rape of a 12-year-old Japanese girl, at the end of a case which has outraged Japan and undermined security ties between Tokyo and Washington.

Navy Seaman Marcus Gill, 23, and Marine Private Rodrico Harp, 21, were sentenced to seven years for the abduction and rape of the schoolgirl in the southern island of Okinawa on 4 September last year. A third serviceman, Marine Private Kendrick Ledet, 20, received a lighter sentence of six and a half years on the grounds that although he tried to rape the girl he was incapable of intercourse.

The leader of the three-judge panel, Shinei Nagamine, described the crime as "vicious".

The victim was walking home from a shopping expedition in northern Okinawa when she was bundled into a hired car by the three men who drove her to a nearby beach and took turns raping her. Prosecutors had called for 10- year terms for the men, but the sentences were still stiff by the standards of Japan, where rapists typically go down for three or four years.

The crime unleashed emotions in Okinawa. Three months before the rape, Okinawans had marked the 50th anniversary of the battle which killed 150,000 civilians in the dying days of the Second World War. For 27 years after, the island was part of the United States. Even after it reverted to Japan in 1972, the island continued to bear the overwhelming burden of American forces. Okinawa amounts to less than 1 per cent of Japan's total area, but houses up to 29,000 of the 47,000 US troops stationed in the country.

The outrage was compounded when the US authorities refused to hand the suspects over to the Japanese police, under a bilateral agreement which allows servicemen to remain in military custody until indictment. For several weeks there were demonstrations, culminating in a rally in October at which 85,000 Okinawans called for the withdrawal of the US bases. The pressure increased when the Socialist governor of Okinawa, Masahide Ota, refused to sign documents necessary for the leasing of the land occupied by the US military.

The affair has revived calls for the abandonment of the US- Japan Security Treaty, regarded by Washington as its most important military alliance. Last November the US Defense Secretary, William Perry, was forced to make a special visit to calm the waters. The subject will be high on the agenda when the Japanese Prime Minister, Ryutaro Hashimoto, entertains President Bill Clinton at a summit in Tokyo next month. A joint committee has been set up to consider ways of reducing Okinawa's burden.

For the time being, both sides insist the number of US troops in Japan will not be reduced, but units may be relocated on the Japanese mainland. Last month, a US general conceded that plans were being considered to relocate American forces in the Pacific to Darwin, northern Australia.

Even after yesterday's sentencing, the affair is not over. American lawyers representing the three men said they would appeal. Throughout the trial there have been claims of forced confessions and legal irregularities.

"The system of interrogations, for 23 days in this particular case, without the assistance of an attorney is a rotten system, which must change," said Michael Griffith, an American attorney.

An application to transfer the hearing elsewhere, on the grounds that inflamed public opinion made a fair trial in Okinawa impossible, was earlier rejected by the Su- preme Court. An American Embassy spokesman declined to comment on the trial.

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