US, Japan forge agreement on civilian base workers’ legal status

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The United States and Japan have agreed in principle to a deal likely to mean legal changes for some base workers under the Status of Forces Agreement.  Erik Slavin/Stars and Stripes
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The United States and Japan have agreed in principle to a deal likely to mean legal changes for some base workers under the Status of Forces Agreement. Erik Slavin/Stars and Stripes

US, Japan forge agreement on civilian base workers’ legal status

by: Erik Slavin | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: December 27, 2016

YOKOHAMA, Japan — The United States and Japan have nearly finalized a deal that could alter the rights of some civilian base workers in Japan, a move spurred by high-profile arrests of base employees in recent years.

“I am pleased that the United States and Japanese negotiators have successfully reached an agreement in principle that clarifies the scope of the civilian component of the U.S. Armed Forces in Japan,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a statement Monday, when most U.S. personnel in Japan were on holiday.

Carter said he expected the agreement to be finalized soon.

No details were released, but the pact is expected to exclude some workers from protection under the Status of Forces Agreement, which spells out rights and responsibilities for military and civilian personnel stationed in Japan.

SOFA has been criticized by some in Japan for appearing to allow U.S. personnel to evade prosecution, though military officials dispute such characterizations.

The agreement gained attention earlier this year following the arrest of Kenneth Franklin Gadson, a Kadena Air Base cable company employee and former Marine, who was charged in June with raping and killing an Okinawan woman.

During a visit to Okinawa, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called it “questionable” that employees like Gadson were SOFA-sponsored.

The SOFA grants primary jurisdiction to Japan in most cases but allows accused personnel in U.S. custody to remain on base prior to being charged. The military then makes the suspect available for questioning by Japanese authorities.

Japan can request early custody in suspected cases of “heinous crimes,” such as murder and rape.

Suspects in Japanese custody can be held by local authorities for more than three weeks without being charged, according to a U.S. Forces Japan instruction.

Last summer, the two sides agreed to place civilians into four categories and exclude workers from SOFA who already have Japanese residency visas.

The four categories include Defense Department civilians working in both appropriated and non-appropriated fund positions; civilians on military-operated ships and aircraft; non-Defense Department, U.S. government employees in Japan for official purposes; and essential technical advisers and consultants officially invited by the military.

The SOFA procedural changes are not a revision of the bilateral treaty, which was signed in 1960.