US Naval Officer Released from Japan Prison After Years of Effort


Lt. Ridge Alkonis, a Navy officer who was jailed in Japan after killing two members of a Japanese family in a car crash, was headed to the United States on Wednesday after a years-long diplomatic effort to bring him home, they said. Biden administration officials. .

Lieutenant Alkonis, 35, was released from prison after serving half of his sentence for negligent driving. Under the terms of the International Prisoner Transfer Program, established by a treaty between the United States and Japan, he was likely to continue serving his sentence in the United States, administration officials said.

The length of his incarceration will be set by the U.S. Parole Commission, an independent part of the Justice Department, officials said. The commission could reduce his sentence or allow him to serve part of it under home confinement. Lieutenant Alkonis will remain detained in the United States until the commission makes its decision.

The case involving Lt. Alkonis, a sailor stationed at the Yokosuka naval base south of Tokyo, was set in motion in May 2021, when the minivan he was driving near Mount Fuji crashed into the parking lot of a restaurant. noodles, killing two people.

The fallout since the accident has strained diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States, with Lt. Alkonis' family and supporters insisting that he had suffered altitude sickness and was denied due process in a foreign judicial system that gave little weight to his guilty plea and repeated his apologies.

In Japan, however, Lieutenant Alkonis is widely viewed as a criminal whose actions claimed two innocent lives. The court, which found that he had fallen asleep after driving while drowsy, followed the wishes of the victims' relatives to impose a “severe penalty” in the case, sending the American to three years in prison.

Officials said President Biden was personally involved in the discussions that led to the lieutenant's release. But officials described the conversation as very sensitive because the president and his top advisers did not want to insult the Japanese government by suggesting that they did not respect the country's judicial system or the need for accountability.

Lieutenant Alkonis' family organized a long campaign to bring him home. Members of Congress joined the effort, arguing that he had a medical emergency while he was driving and should not be held culpable for the deaths that occurred.

In a statement, the family thanked the Biden administration and expressed optimism that Lt. Alkonis would be released following review of his case in the United States.

“After 507 days, Lieutenant Ridge Alkonis is on his way home to the United States. “We are heartened by Ridge’s move back to the United States, but we cannot celebrate until Ridge has been reunited with his family,” the family said in the statement to The Associated Press. “When the full set of facts and circumstances surrounding the case are presented to the Biden administration, we are confident that they will quickly recognize the absurdity of Ridge's conviction.”

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, has led the effort to demand the sailor's return. He has repeatedly threatened to push for a reconsideration of the U.S.-Japan military cooperation agreement if the country does not allow Lt. Alkonis to return.

“If you transfer Lieutenant Alkonis back to the United States before midnight on February 28, 2023, we will do our best to forget that any of this ever happened,” Lee wrote in February. “It will be difficult, but we will try.”

Administration officials said Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, worked personally with Japanese officials to secure the lieutenant's return. Biden raised the issue with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan during a visit to the White House in January.

But U.S. officials said the release was not negotiated as it would have been in the case of a hostage exchange with an adversary. Instead, the details of Lieutenant Alkonis's release – and what will happen to him in the United States – were strictly determined by the prisoner transfer treaty and the US laws establishing it.

The program, which began in 1977, was designed to facilitate prisoners' rehabilitation, which is often difficult when they are detained in other countries where they do not speak the language, officials said. Transfers are carried out only with the agreement of both countries and the prisoner.

Two weeks ago, after the two governments reached an agreement, a U.S. official traveled to Japan to obtain Lt. Alkonis's consent and make sure he understood the terms.

Officials said the Biden administration had offered to provide information to the Parole Commission about Lt. Alkonis' service record and anything they requested. But officials stressed that by law, neither the White House nor Justice Department officials had any role in the commission's decision.

The officials also said the United States had not exchanged prisoners or provided anything in return to Japan.

The decision to bring Lt. Alkonis back did not change his conviction in Japan, officials said, and did not mean the Biden administration was questioning the court's findings there.

Since taking office, Biden has instructed his national security team to focus on bringing home Americans detained abroad. In most cases, these are people designated as “unjustly detained” by adversaries. They included Brittney Griner, an American basketball player who was detained in Russia; five Americans who had been imprisoned in Iran; and several oil executives who had been detained in Venezuela.

Officials said several prisoners have also been transferred back to the United States from friendlier countries.

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