OKINAWA CITY, Japan — Ending a stalemate that threatened to cast a shadow over a key security alliance, the United States surrendered an American serviceman accused of rape to Japanese authorities Friday, allowing police formally to arrest him.
Prolonged deliberations by U.S. officials on whether to hand over Timothy Woodland to Japanese police had caused friction between Tokyo and Washington and enraged people on Okinawa, where American soldiers have committed a series of sex crimes in recent years.
“We have every reason to believe that completely fair and humane treatment will be accorded this serviceman,” the State Department’s No. 2 official, Richard Armitage, said in Washington.
Armitage said he expects Japanese who oppose the American military presence in Okinawa to try to take advantage of the case to promote a U.S. withdrawal, but believes the sergeant was turned over to Japanese authorities soon enough to prevent the situation from getting out of control.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi welcomed Friday’s handover, but urged Washington to take ensure that troops behave.
“I’d like more efforts taken by the United States in overseeing U.S. servicemen so they are more disciplined,” Koizumi told reporters.
Woodland, a 24-year-old staff sergeant, was arrested on suspicion of forcing an Okinawan woman up against a car and raping her June 29 in a parking lot outside a row of bars. The arrest came four days after police obtained a warrant.
On Friday, Okinawan police assumed custody of Woodland at Kadena Air Base, where he has been stationed, hours after U.S. Ambassador Howard H. Baker announced that Washington had given the go-ahead.
“In our discussion with the Japanese government, we have satisfied ourselves that our U.S. service member will receive fair and humane treatment,” Baker said in Tokyo after talks with Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka.
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.
Okinawan police tried to allay fears that Woodland, who has denied the allegations, may be treated unfairly.
“We will pay maximum attention to his rights as well as to the victim’s privacy,” Chief Detective Isamu Inamine said after Woodland’s arrest.
As is customary in Japan, no defense attorney had been present during the pre-arrest questioning of Woodland. An interpreter has been provided at Woodland’s interrogation sessions.
Although the diplomatic obstacle over the suspect’s transfer has been cleared, rancor in Okinawa over the alleged rape is not likely to subside any time soon.
People on this small island have long bridled at holding more than half of the 50,000 U.S. troops posted in Japan.
And they are outraged over repeated sexual attacks involving U.S. soldiers, despite promises from Washington to ratchet up discipline. There were huge demonstrations on this southern tropical island in 1995 following the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen.
This week, the Okinawa prefectural assembly adopted a resolution condemning the alleged attack on June 29, and residents have staged several noisy protests.
The Japanese side had appeared to be losing patience with American demands that they change their legal procedures to ensure that Woodland’s rights are respected.
“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.”
Other senior government officials expressed relief that the transfer put the U.S. and Japan on track to lay aside differences that threatened to hinder their strategic relationship.
“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.
Woodland has become only the second American serviceman turned over to Japanese authorities before the filing of actual charges, and the first on Okinawa. He had been held in U.S. military custody following the alleged attack, but underwent questioning at a Japanese police station.
Although Woodland was formally arrested Friday, prosecutors have not yet charged him. He will likely be tried in a Japanese court, and face several years in a Japanese prison if convicted.
The case has renewed criticism of the special legal status granted to the 26,000 troops stationed here. Under an agreement governing the U.S. military presence in Japan, local officials generally need U.S. approval to take custody of military suspects.
Okinawa Gov. Keiichi Inamine said the agreement governing U.S. military affairs in Japan should be revised to speed the handover of suspects.
“The slow progress has fueled anger and frustration among people in Okinawa,” the governor said.