March 1, 2023
On February 2, I called on Japanese Prime Minister Kishida to transfer Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis back to the United States no later than February 28 by 11:59 P.M. EST. I was explicit that a public discussion about the U.S.—Japan Status of Forces agreement would ensue if he were not on U.S. soil by that date.
It's now March 1, 2023. It's [insert current time], and Lt. Ridge Alkonis remains in a Japanese prison cell.
So, Mr. President, let's have a frank discussion about our Status of Forces agreement with Japan.
Because we've waited long enough. Brittney Alkonis has waited long enough. Their children have waited long enough.
We are done waiting.
The Japanese government has unjustly incarcerated Lt. Alkonis for too long. In August, I traveled to Tokyo to meet with Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi, where he made an unequivocal commitment to expedite the council of Europe prisoner transfer once the U.S. paperwork was completed, “in a matter of days or weeks, not months or years.”
Lt. Alkonis felt comfortable signing off on the transfer paperwork because of Hayashi's commitment. With this understanding, the U.S. Department of Justice completed the necessary paperwork in less than two weeks. Japan has been sitting on it for eight months.
However, the Japanese government tried to renege on its promise by having a junior member of the Japanese embassy staff reach out to my team to deny that Hayashi ever made such a commitment. Allow me, not a member of my staff, to correct the record. Foreign Minister Hayashi, you did make that commitment to me.
This isn't too much to ask of any country, let alone one we spend billions to defend. A council of Europe transfer is not an extraordinary request. On the contrary, they are routine. Situations like this are the reason we have a prisoner transfer process in the first place. The stated purpose for the Council of Europe Treaty is to facilitate the rehabilitation of the transferred offenders and to relieve some of the administration and diplomatic issues that arise with the incarceration of foreign nationals.
We’re not even asking for Ridge to be released from custody. We’re simply asking that he be transferred to U.S. custody to serve out the remainder of his sentence.
These transfers happen all the time.
It makes little sense that we would allow those tasked with defending the Constitution and its enshrined principles to be treated so poorly by an allied nation. To be subjected to laws so draconian that they are unrecognizable to the principles of justice our servicemembers swear to defend.
When we swear to defend the Constitution of the United States, it represents an enduring commitment to individual liberty–a spirit that says no matter who we are, where we come from, or what religion we practice, we enjoy liberty that it is self-evident because it is God-given.
Our Armed Forces stand ready to protect not only the safety and sovereignty of the United States but the safety and sovereignty of our friends, like Japan, who enjoyed over 20 billion in U.S. military aid over the last five years. And yet, they can't keep their promise to facilitate a routine prisoner transfer? I cannot accept that.
I don’t think the American people can accept that, either. I don’t think they’d be okay knowing we spend billions to defend a country when our Status of Forces agreement is so unfavorable to our troops. I don’t think they’d be okay sending 55,000 their sons and daughters to support an allied country where they won’t have basic legal rights.
Japan isn’t, either. To illustrate, under the terms of the Japan-Djibouti Status of Forces Agreement—the only country in which Japan has a foreign base—Japanese servicemembers are immune from criminal prosecution. Why should Japan be allowed to treat U.S. forces any less favorably?
Japan has a good thing going. I don't know why they'd want to jeopardize that.
But patience in Washington has grown thin. And the Japanese government has underestimated the intensity of bipartisan support for Lt. Alkonis in Congress, and at every level of government, including a commitment from President Biden to Brittney Alkonis saying, “I promise you, we’re not giving up, OK?”
President Biden is right.
We're not giving up. This isn't going away, we're not going to keep quiet, and the longer Ridge remains in Japanese custody, the louder we will get.
If the Japanese government can't respect our servicemembers and we can't trust them to uphold their commitments, then we are long overdue for a renegotiation of the Status of Forces agreement between our two nations. We must do so to protect our servicemembers, especially if they’re stationed in a country with a Justice system as draconian as Japan’s.
In Japanese criminal justice, interrogation is the primary means police and prosecutors use to obtain confessions. But these are no ordinary interrogations. In a typical criminal case, the average Japanese interrogation lasts more than twenty hours. In bribery cases, interrogations average 130 hours.
The night that Lt. Alkonis was involved in that tragic accident, rather than being taken to a hospital, he was placed in solitary confinement for 26 days. He was denied access to legal counsel, denied an adequate translator, denied proper medical care, and was subjected to intense interrogation tactics at all hours of the night. He was subjected to bright lights causing sleep deprivation and coerced into signing complex legal documents written in Japanese, with no interpreter, just to have a chance at getting bail.
It was later discovered that Japanese authorities manipulated Lt. Alkonis’s statement. Not uncommon in Japan, where 26% of prosecutors admitted in an anonymous survey to falsifying suspects’ statements. He was told not to contest the falsified documents as the Japanese court would perceive this as a lack of remorse. Given the unfair treatment of one of our best and brightest, we as a Congress should take every precaution to ensure that our servicemembers are never treated like this again.
I’m not exaggerating. The U.N. Human Rights Council and other legal and human rights organizations have long criticized Japan's justice system for unnecessarily long pre-indictment detention periods, denial of lawyers during interrogations, and questionable interrogation tactics. Often these practices lead to false confessions and have resulted in Japan's legal system being known as "hostage justice."
Don’t believe me? The criminal conviction rate in Japan is 99%.
We have Status of Forces agreements to establish frameworks under which U.S. military personnel operate in foreign countries and how the domestic laws of foreign jurisdictions apply to U.S. personnel in those countries. At a minimum, any agreement between the United States and a foreign country should provide adequate legal protections for American servicemembers. This means access to legal counsel, a competent interpreter, and medical treatment throughout the legal process. These are basic rights afforded in modern and fair justice systems, but not in Japan.
It's not too much to ask for a renegotiation of our SOFA with Japan. Similar concerns once existed in the Republic of Korea; however, we successfully implemented much-needed improvements to the US-Korea SOFA to include: a U.S. government representative to be present during any interview or interrogation, a lawyer to be present at any time at the request of the service member or dependent including during interviews and interrogations, and a competent interpreter. We need these same changes in the US-Japan SOFA.
I'm sure there are many who wish I wasn't giving this speech. I’ve been told it isn't worth risking the relationship we have with a strategic partner over a single American.
The Latin term "Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno" means one for all, all for one. The concept is depicted in multiple times in the Bible. It can be found in the works Shakespeare's and was made popular by Alexandre Dumas in his 1844 novel The Three Musketeers.
Our military personnel and their families sacrifice their blood, sweat, and treasure so that all of us might enjoy the blessings of liberty that generations of Americans fought and died to protect. They embody "one for all." But what does it say about us if we are collectively unwilling to stand up for the rights of the one? We cannot expect people to stand up for their country if their country does not stand up for them.