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US Air Force sergeant indicted for rape in Okinawa

Updated:

TOKYO (AP) _ Prosecutors charged a U.S. Air Force sergeant on Thursday with raping a Japanese woman last month on Okinawa, in a case that has strained relations between Japan and the United States.

Choko Zukeran, a spokesman for the District prosecutors office in Naha, the Okinawa prefectural capital, said Staff Sgt. Timothy Woodland was charged with rape for the June 29 attack on a 20-year-old woman.

The case and a U.S. delay in handing the suspect over to Japanese authorities have inflamed tensions between Okinawa and the U.S. military, which has about 26,000 service people stationed on the southern island.

U.S. officials refused to hand Woodland over to local police for four days after an arrest warrant was issued on July 2, saying they wanted guarantees that his rights would be protected. Many Japanese took the delay as an insult to the nation's justice system.

Woodland was arrested on July 6 after U.S. and Japanese negotiators worked out a handover agreement. The Americans have not released details, but Japanese news reports said prosecutors agreed to limit questioning of Woodland to 10 hours a day and to move quickly on the case.

Prosecutors originally had until July 23, next Monday, to charge Woodland, but Naha District Court on Wednesday moved that deadline up to Thursday, Zukeran said.

The deadline was changed after the court determined prosecutors had gathered enough evidence to charge him, Kyodo News service reported.

The move to indict comes on the heels of a reported push by Woodland's lawyer, Tsuyoshi Arakaki, to get him released, arguing that the suspect's passport was held by the U.S. military and he was unlikely to flee.

Judge Misao Shimizu, however, said the court was concerned that if released, Woodland would meet with U.S. military personnel who witnessed the alleged crime and ask them not to testify against him, Kyodo said.

Adm. Dennis Blair, commander in chief of U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in Tokyo shortly before the indictment that the agreement reached on Woodland's handover was ``satisfactory.''

``We are not shielding American servicemen from Japanese law,'' Blair said. ``I'm satisfied that the incident is being handled correctly and I think we can handle these incidents in the future.''

The case has prompted calls in Japan to revise the U.S.-Japan agreement governing the American military in Japan. Under that agreement, the United States is not required to hand over criminal suspects until they are formally charged, although it is supposed to ``consider'' requests for custody before indictment.

Some Japanese, however, say that should be changed to provide a quicker handover of American military suspects to Japanese authorities and to speed investigations.

Last week, the foreign affairs committee of Japan's lower house of Parliament adopted a resolution demanding a review of the bilateral agreement and criticizing the U.S. military for failing to prevent crimes by troops stationed in Japan.

In the Woodland case, the U.S. side had reportedly been concerned about the translator assigned to assist him, and had wanted a defense lawyer to be present during questioning. The case, however, has mostly followed Japanese procedures, under which the prosecution assigns the translator and no lawyer is present during questioning.

Woodland is stationed at the Kadena Air Base on Okinawa. His hometown has not been released. He will be tried in a Japanese court, and if convicted, he would serve his sentence in a Japanese prison.

Residents of Okinawa _ about 1,000 miles southwest of Tokyo _ have been outraged by repeated crimes involving U.S. soldiers despite promises from Washington to ratchet up discipline. Three U.S. servicemen raped a 12-year-old girl on the island in 1995.
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