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US hands American serviceman suspected of rape over to Japanese police in Okinawa

Updated:

OKINAWA CITY, Japan (AP) _ U.S. authorities handed over an American serviceman accused of rape to Japanese police on Friday, resolving a standoff that strained relations and fanned resentment of the U.S. military in Okinawa.

Okinawa police took Staff Sgt. Timothy Woodland into custody at Kadena Air Base, where the suspect has been stationed, and took him to the police station, said base spokeswoman Lt. Col. Seavy Shapiro.

There, Woodland was formally placed under arrest, public broadcaster NHK reported.

The handover came after U.S. Ambassador Howard Baker announced in Tokyo that Washington had given the go ahead for the transfer.

Baker spoke late Friday afternoon after talks with Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka. He said the decision had been made ``after careful consideration of the facts.''

Woodland, a 24-year-old stationed at Okinawa's Kadena Air Base, is suspected in the rape of a local woman in her 20s last week in a popular tourist area on the southern island.

Woodland has denied the allegations, and the U.S. government had refused to hand him over to Japanese custody until it received assurances that his rights would be protected. The U.S. demands reportedly concern Woodland's legal defense and his access to a translator.

The handover was made after a joint U.S.-Japan commission met to finalize arrangements for the handover.

Woodland underwent questioning at a Japanese police station Friday. He was moved back to Kadena in the late afternoon to await word from the commission, before being driven back to the police station for the formal transfer.

``In our discussion with the Japanese government, we have satisfied ourselves that our U.S. service member will receive fair and humane treatment throughout his custody,'' Baker said, adding that the U.S. government regretted any misconduct.

The Japanese government praised the accord.

``We both might have lacked understanding about each other, but we eventually reached an amicable solution, and that's good,'' said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda.

Tanaka told reporters after her meeting with Baker that the agreement would dispel any doubts about the fairness of the Japanese criminal justice system.

``We are also obligated to show the rest of the world that Japan has a good legal system that is fully capable of handling the case,'' she said.

Under an agreement governing the U.S. military presence in Japan, local officials generally need U.S. approval to take custody of military suspects. Police on Okinawa say they wanted Woodland turned over to them in order to wrap up their investigation as soon as possible.

Police spokesman Akira Namihira said that authorities had given Woodland a lie detector test, but he would not provide the results. He said the test was administered before Woodland's arrest warrant was issued on Monday.

As is customary in Japan, no defense attorney had been present during the pre-arrest questioning of Woodland, Okinawa police say. Japanese prosecutors _ not the defense _ assign translators when non-Japanese speakers are being questioned. An interpreter has been provided at Woodland's interrogation sessions.

The Japanese side had appeared to be losing patience with American demands that they change their procedures.

``Crimes committed in Japan should be tried according to Japanese law,'' said Defense Agency chief Gen Nakatani. ``Privileges should not be applied in this case just because the suspect is a U.S. serviceman.''

Washington's hesitation to give approval for Woodland's handover had generated anger on Okinawa, and renewed criticism of the special legal status granted to the 26,000 troops stationed here.

Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine said the case showed the limits of the bilateral agreement governing U.S. military affairs in Japan, and he said it should be revised to speed the handover of U.S. military suspects.

``The slow progress has fueled anger and frustration among people in Okinawa,'' Inamine said.

Woodland would become only the second American serviceman turned over to Japanese authorities prior to the filing of actual charges, and the first on Okinawa. He had been held in U.S. military custody following the June 29 attack, and police here have had an arrest warrant for him since Monday.

The first such handover was made in 1996, when an American was suspected of attempted murder near Nagasaki. He was later convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Huge protests on Okinawa following the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen in 1995 prompted Washington to agree to consider handing over suspects before charges are filed.

Woodland will likely be tried in a Japanese court and face several years in a Japanese prison if convicted. Japan's conviction rate for cases that go to trial is more than 95 percent.

In a resolution, the Okinawa prefectural assembly noted that this small island on Japan's southern fringe bears most of the burden of hosting the nearly 50,000 U.S. troops in this country. The assembly in the northern Okinawan city of Nago also adopted a protest resolution on Friday.
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