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Crime › Japan, U.S. to start talks on clarifying civilians subject to SOFA

by June 4, 2016 General


The United States on Saturday agreed with Japan, in the wake of another violent crime in Okinawa, to review the scope of American citizens subject to a bilateral pact that grants virtual extraterritorial rights to its military service members.

“I sincerely regret this incident and apologize,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said during a meeting in Singapore with Japanese counterpart Gen Nakatani, referring to last month’s arrest of an American civilian worker at a U.S. base on the southern island over the death of a local woman, adding that he agrees on the need for the review.

“I appreciate the opportunity to work together so that an incident like this never happens again,” Carter said.

Okinawa Gov Takeshi Onaga and the assembly of the small island prefecture that hosts the bulk of U.S. military bases in Japan have called for revising the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement.

But the deal between Carter and Nakatani is not about revising the pact itself and is still seen as part of preventive measures following the crime. The review is mainly aimed at clarifying the legal status of civilian workers under the 1960 pact.

Both sides also agreed to take additional steps to better manage civilians working at U.S. military facilities in Japan, according to Nakatani, who met with Carter on the sidelines of a regional security forum held annually.

More than 40 years since its return to Japan in 1972 following postwar U.S. occupation, Okinawa still hosts about 75 percent of all U.S. military facilities in Japan in terms of land area.

Okinawa has long not only suffered from aircraft and other noises from the bases, but also from crimes involving U.S. servicemen.

The pact, also known as SOFA, is seen by locals as one-sided and overly protective of Americans.

Under SOFA, which has never been revised, Japanese prosecutors cannot indict members of U.S. forces or their “civilian component” if offenses are deemed to have been committed while on duty.

The agreement says U.S. authorities have, in principle, the primary right to exercise jurisdiction over them in such cases.

SOFA allows a suspect to cooperate with Japanese investigations only on a voluntary basis in some cases.

The United States has shown reluctance to undertake a fundamental overhaul of SOFA as demanded by Onaga, but believes the way the agreement is applied can be improved.

Kenneth Franklin Shinzato, an ex-Marine who worked in a civilian capacity at the U.S. Air Force’s Kadena Air Base, was arrested on May 19 for allegedly abandoning the body of the 20-year-old woman.

He is alleged to have confessed to sexually assaulting and killing her, but has not been charged with murder. In this case, SOFA has not posed any obstacle to investigations.