US Marine 'pressured' to confess to Okinawa rape

It was another grim day for the American military in Japan. Four of its servicemen faced serious charges in two separate trials on the island of Okinawa yesterday. One of them, a Marine private, accused the US military police of coercing him into confessing to the rape of a 12-year-old girl.

Private Rodrico Harp, together with another Marine and a naval seaman, is charged with abducting and raping the schoolgirl in early September. The crime provoked an uproar throughout Japan against American bases in Okinawa, forced a televised apology from President Bill Clinton, and seriously undermined the US-Japan security relationship.

At the first hearing last month, Seaman Marcus Gill pleaded guilty to all charges, while Pte Harp and the other Marine admitted helping to carry out the crime, but retracted earlier confessions of the actual rape. Yesterday in the District Court of Naha, the Okinawan capital, Pte Harp insisted that he was manipulated into saying "what the Japanese would like to hear" by US naval police.

He said they fabricated a report for prosecutors. "When I told them what did happen, they pressured me to go in another direction," he told the three judges through an interpreter.

Earlier in the day, prosecutors in the same court called for a 13-year prison sentence for another Marine who has admitted beating to death a 20-year-old woman with a hammer last May.

Japan has no jury system, and hearings, scheduled at the convenience of lawyers and judges, are held only one day at a time at intervals of about a month. Both cases are likely to extend into next year, prolonging the embarrassment of the US government, which is under intense pressure to reduce the 29,000 troops on Okinawa.

Pte Harp's wife, who flew over for yesterday's hearing, became the latest in a list of Americans - including Walter Mondale, ambassador to Tokyo, William Perry, the Defense Secretary, and President Clinton - to deliver an emotional apology for her husband's crime. "I am very sorry for the behaviour of my husband to the Japanese people, her mother and father, and to the people of Japan and the US."

The statement marked a change in strategy by the defence. After the first hearing last month, the families of the three men, all of whom are black, claimed that they were victims of Japanese racism. Such protestations go down badly with Japanese judges, whose sentencing is heavily influenced by guilty pleas and expressions of contrition.

Defence tactics have changed accordingly: yesterday, lawyers for the families of the accused men told reporters that they intend to pay 1.5m yen (pounds 9,375) "apology money" to the victim and her parents. "The amount is fairly high for the kind of compensation customary in a case like this," said Seaman Gill's lawyer, Yutaka Arakawa. "But we believe it could have a beneficial effect on the trial."

But the outcome is in little doubt. "You've got a 99.5 per cent confession rate and a 99.8 per cent conviction rate over here," said Eric Ross, an American lawyer accompanying the families. "Look at the odds. With that kind of percentile, all you can do is mitigate the damage."

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