US lawmakers call for Navy lieutenant to be released from prison sentence in Japan

Members of Congress are calling on Japanese authorities to release an American naval officer who recently began serving a three-year sentence for his role in an accidental car crash which claimed the lives of two Japanese nationals.

Lieutenant Ridge Alkonis on Tuesday reported for the start of his sentence, which was imposed on him by a Japanese court earlier this year after he was convicted of negligent driving charges stemming from a May 2021 car accident.

Alkonis was driving his wife and his two children down a mountain road on the slopes of Mount Fuji following a hike, just days before he was set to begin a deployment on the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Benfold. During the descent, he lost consciousness and his vehicle struck several parked cars and killed an elderly Japanese woman and her son-in-law.

He was arrested and detained for interrogation by Japanese police over a 26-day period, after which Navy Medical Corps personnel found that he had been afflicted by Acute Mountain Sickness on account of his rapid ascent and descent from Japan’s highest mountain. Yet he was indicted on the negligent driving charges by Japanese prosecutors who argued that he had fallen asleep.

In such cases of accidental death, the Japanese court system frequently takes into account whether a defendant has engaged in gomenasai, the practice of offering a formal apology and paying reparations to the deceased’s family. Alkonis did so, including making a record $1.65m restitution payment.

In the Japanese court system, such settlements frequently negate the need for a criminal trial or sentence of incarceration, but in Aloknis’ case, the court chose not to suspend his three-year sentence.

Alkonis’ home state senator, Mike Lee, denounced his treatment in a floor speech on Monday.

“I find it inexcusable that an American who experienced a medical emergency be treated so poorly by an allied Nation that he protected,” said Mr Lee, who noted that Japanese nationals are routinely granted leniency in similar cases.

The Utah senator also accused Japanese authorities of “trying to make an example” of the Navy lieutenant because of longstanding disputes between Tokyo and Washington over the status of forces agreement under which roughly 55,000 US service members are stationed in Japan, and suggested that the US should renegotiate the agreement if US service members “can’t get fair treatment from the country they have been tasked to defend”.

The 1960 agreement has been a point of contention in US-Japan relations because of incidents in which US service members have committed violent crimes against Japanese nationals.

California Representative Mike Levin said he is “deeply concerned about the Japanese government’s handling of the case” in a speech on the House floor.

Mr Levin, a Democrat, said he was “extremely upset to learn that the case was not conducted in a way that was fair to Lieutenant Alkonis,” and accused Tokyo of violating the US-Japan status of forces agreement.

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