TOKYO – Japanese police said Thursday that an American soldier is the prime suspect in a fatal-hit-and-run accident on the southern island of Okinawa and asked the U.S. Army to bring him in for further questioning.
The incident comes amid strains in U.S.-Japan relations as Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama reviews the American military presence in the country. Some members of his administration have suggested they would like to see some U.S. bases moved off Okinawa, where more than half the 47,000 U.S. troops in Japan are based.
Many residents there have complained about noise, pollution and crime tied to U.S. troops.
Investigators have linked the U.S. Army soldier, whose name and rank has not been disclosed, to a Nov. 7 accident in which a 66-year-old man was hit by a car and killed, said Okinawa police spokesman Takashi Shiradou. Investigators say the soldier raised suspicions when he took his military-registered car, which had dents and blood stains, to a repair shop. Samples collected from the car matched those of the victim.
"We have obtained enough evidence to make the soldier the prime suspect," Shiradou said.
The soldier, who has not been charged, has been interviewed three times by prefectural police in relation to the incident, said Maj. James Crawford, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army in Japan.
"We are cooperating with (Japanese police) and at the same time we're trying to respect the rights of the individual," said Crawford, referring to the soldier. "He hasn't been charged with anything yet, either by prefectural police or the U.S. Army."
Under the Status of Forces Agreement between the two countries, American servicemen suspected of committing a crime off base can be tried in a Japanese court, although the U.S. isn't obligated to hand over suspects before indictment.
The case has begun to get some political attention, with Hatoyama asking for a pre-indictment handover of the suspect to Japanese authorities.
The soldier has refused to come in for further questioning on the advice of his Japanese attorney unless the session is fully videotaped, said Shiradou. Generally, Japanese police are limited in their use of videotaping during questionings.
The attorney, Toshimitsu Takaesu, did not immediately respond to phone calls.
According to the local newspaper Ryuku Shimpo, Takaesu said the soldier denied any awareness of hitting a person, saying he wouldn't have taken the car to a repair shop if that was the case, and that he thought he had hit a tree.
Japanese police only identified the suspect as a soldier in his 20s belonging to Torii communication station in Yomitan, Okinawa. Kyodo News agency has said he is a 27-year-old staff sergeant.
Crawford said the soldier, who lived off base, has been required to remain on base until the situation is resolved.