JAPANESE prosecutors get 10 days to file charges against American rape suspect

Saturday, July 7th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKINAWA CITY, Japan (AP) _ An Okinawan judge gave prosecutors 10 days on Saturday to file charges against a detained U.S. Air Force sergeant accused of raping a Japanese woman on the southern island.

Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Woodland was turned over to Japanese authorities and arrested Friday after an agreement with U.S. officials, who had delayed surrendering him before the Japanese guaranteed his rights would be protected.

A judge in the state capital of Naha gave prosecutors the customary 10 days to build a case against Woodland, a spokesman for the Okinawa prosecutors office said on condition of anonymity.

Should prosecutors fail to gather enough evidence in that time to formally charge Woodland, they would either have to release him or apply for a one-time 10-day extension to continue their investigation, said Takashi Hamada, a Naha District Court official.

Woodland, whose hometown has not been released, was arrested on suspicion of forcing an Okinawan woman up against a car and raping her in the early morning hours of June 29 in a parking lot outside a row of bars. The arrest came four days after police obtained a warrant.

The U.S. government had been reluctant to hand Woodland over because of concerns about his legal defense under Japan's judicial system, which convicts more than 95 percent of suspects whose cases go to trial.

Woodland has denied the allegations, and the standoff over his handover had angered many Japanese and strained relations between Tokyo and Washington.

U.S. Ambassador Howard Baker said Friday that the U.S. side was satisfied that Woodland would be treated fairly, but he released no details of the agreement with the Japanese that led to the handover.

News reports in Japan on Saturday, however, quoted unidentified Japanese officials as saying that they did not comply with American demands that a U.S.-appointed translator and defense lawyer be with Woodland during questioning.

Instead, the interrogation will follow standard Japanese procedure, under which the prosecution will select the translator and no lawyer will be present.

The Asahi newspaper, however, cited unidentified Foreign Ministry officials as saying that the Japanese side agreed to Washington's request that the questioning be limited to 10 hours a day.

The attack and the delay in handing Woodland over to Japanese authorities have fanned resentment of the U.S. military in Okinawa, 1,000 miles southwest of Tokyo, where repeated sexual attacks involving U.S. soldiers have occurred. Okinawa hosts 26,000 of the 50,000 U.S. troops posted in Japan.

At least two local assemblies in Okinawa passed protest resolutions this week, and Kyodo News service reported Saturday that the mayor of Ginowan had declared parks, beaches and other public areas off-limits to U.S. military personnel. Ginowan officials were unavailable for comment, said a guard who answered the phone Saturday afternoon.

Many Japanese were indignant about the U.S. reluctance to hand over Woodland and took it as an insult to its legal system.

Asahi newspaper called for a review of the U.S.-Japan security agreement, which generally requires local officials to get U.S. approval before taking custody of military suspects.

``If normal Americans commit crimes on the streets of Tokyo, they're naturally going to be arrested by Japanese police,'' the newspaper said in an editorial Saturday. ``But it's hard to understand why the U.S. police and courts are given first consideration when military personnel are involved.''

There were huge demonstrations here in 1995 following the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen. That assault prompted Washington to agree to consider handing over suspects before charges are filed, a move that allowed for Woodland's transfer to Japanese authorities.

Woodland is only the second American serviceman turned over to Japanese authorities prior to the filing of actual charges, and the first on Okinawa. Woodland will likely be tried in a Japanese court and face several years in a Japanese prison if convicted.