Mon, Nov 17, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Rumsfeld tries to restart military-crime talks

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , TOKYO

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, center, visits the Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa yesterday.

PHOTO: AFP

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the Japanese government on Saturday that it was urgent to resolve the festering issue of defining legal rights for US military personnel in Japan suspected of violent crimes, senior Pentagon officials said.

The two governments already broke their self-imposed deadline for bridging differences on the complicated rules of criminal jurisdiction and custody that would apply to American personnel before they are formally charged with crimes.

"The subject did come up, and was discussed," Rumsfeld said at a news conference here.

Noting that the US and Japan disbanded talks on the issue in early August, Rumsfeld added, "It is certainly my hope that they will be re-established at some point in the period ahead."

A senior Defense Department official said that in private talks on Saturday with the Japanese foreign minister, Yoriko Kawaguchi, Rumsfeld "expressed his sense of urgency" at resolving the conflict. The issue has tainted the broader discussion on where and in what numbers US forces should be based in Japan.

The US government wants guarantees that its troops will be protected by legal guarantees similar to those they would receive at home.

The Japanese government balks at giving Americans more legal privileges than its own citizens, especially in cases of serious crimes that outrage Japanese communities already chafing under the US military presence.

The two nations have a treaty, the Status of Forces Agreement, which requires the US to hand over service personnel to Japanese law enforcement authorities only after they are charged by local prosecutors.

But several cases involving American servicemen, especially on Okinawa, where the bulk of US troops in Japan are based, prompted the US to offer "favorable consideration" to requests for transferring suspects to Japanese authorities even before indictment in heinous cases.

In return, the US asked that its personnel have the right to have an American representative present during questioning. In contrast to the American legal system, Japan allows lengthy detention and interrogation before a suspect is granted access to a lawyer.

One senior Pentagon official said that Japanese officials "agreed that this was an important time to get back to" negotiations, but no date was set for resuming talks on the issue that presents a domestic quandary for the government.

The Japanese defense minister, Shigeru Ishiba, who addressed the news conference with Rumsfeld, added a wrinkle to his government's announcement this week that it would delay any decision on sending troops to Iraq.

Ishiba said Japan remained committed to assisting in the mission to stabilize Iraq, and would like to send troops as soon as possible, but he set no date.

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