Three U.S. servicemen were convicted Thursday in the rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl and sentenced to 6-1/2 to 7 years in prison in a case that became a symbol of America’s controversial bases on this southern island.
The verdict, handed down by a panel of three judges at the Naha District Court, followed six months of protests against the U.S. presence. Support for American troops on Okinawa is at one of its lowest points since World War II.
None of the three U.S. GIs Navy Seaman Marcus Gill, of Woodville, Texas; Marine Pfc. Rodrico Harp, of Griffin, Georgia; and Marine Pfc. Kendrick Ledet, of Waycross, Georgia - showed any emotion when the sentences were read.
Gill and Harp were sentenced to seven years and Ledet received 6-1/2 years. The sentences, tough by Japanese standards, will be served in Yokosuka prison, just south of Tokyo.
All three had confessed to some role in the crime. On the trial’s opening day, Gill said that he raped the girl, while Ledet and Harp said they helped abduct her, but only because Gill bullied them into joining him.
The court, however, said Harp’s testimony was “untrustworthy,” and he therefore was given the same sentence as Gill.
In a statement, the judges said the crime was carried out “systematically,” violated the victim’s human dignity and caused her extreme physical and psychological harm.
The U.S. Embassy in a statement refused to comment on the ruling and said an American military observer was present at all the proceedings and reported no problems contrary to U.S. or Japanese judicial practices.
“Japan is a nation under the rule of law, just as the United States is a nation under the rule law,” the statement said. “We respect each other’s legal processes.”
Prosecutors said the three forced the girl into their rented car on the night of Sept. 4 as she left a stationery shop after buying a school notebook. They allegedly beat and bound her as Gill drove to a deserted road amid fields of sugar cane.
The girl was raped there, and abandoned. Still bleeding, she wandered to the nearest house and tearfully called home. Gill, Ledet and Harp were arrested by military police two days later.
Prosecutors argued before the judges - there are no jury trials in Japan - that all three participated in the rape and deserved equal punishment.
Although TV cameras were not allowed inside the courtroom, in keeping with Japanese legal custom, the proceedings were closely followed on this small, crowded island. About 300 people lined up Thursday morning for a lottery for the 34 seats available in the courtroom.
In the trial’s first session last November, the victim’s father said he wished he could kill the three Americans himself. Later, the interpreter broke down in tears as she rendered into Japanese Gill’s graphic account of the rape.
Emotions outside court have also been high.
Record numbers of Okinawans have rallied against the heavy U.S. military presence here since the rape. The largest protest, held in October, drew more than 60,000 people, many of whom shouted demands for the immediate withdrawal of the 27,000 U.S. troops.
Outside the court Thursday, about a dozen red-stenciled anti-base signs had been hung up, some reading “American Animals Get Out” in English.
Okinawa Gov. Masahide Ota, a longstanding opponent of the U.S. bases, has called for the troops’ removal by 2015, and his government has drawn up detailed plans for the departure.
“Some American troops still believe Okinawa is U.S. territory,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “Okinawa is ours, not yours.”