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Family of US Navy officer jailed in Japan over fatal car crash calls on Biden to intervene

<i>US Navy</i><br/>The family of Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis
US Navy
The family of Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis

By Natasha Bertrand and Kylie Atwood, CNN

The family of a US Navy officer imprisoned in Japan rallied outside the White House on Wednesday to protest his detention and try to attract President Joe Biden’s attention to the case.

Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis was sentenced to three years in a Japanese prison in October for what Japanese courts deemed to be the negligent driving deaths of two Japanese citizens in May 2021. Alkonis appealed, but his sentence was upheld last month.

Alkonis has maintained that he suffered from acute mountain sickness as he was driving down from Mount Fuji with his family on May 29, 2021, and fell unconscious behind the wheel, leading to the deadly crash. An 85-year-old woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law died in the accident.

The Japanese high court did not believe Alkonis’ argument that he fell ill, and instead accused him of falling asleep at the wheel. Under those standards, Alkonis’ sentence could have been longer — under Japanese law, he could have faced up to seven years in prison, according to the Japanese government.

But Alkonis’ family has argued he was ill, not negligent, and therefore committed no crime. They have also noted that they offered the victims’ families over $1 million in restitution, as is customary in Japan.

“The reason we think it’s unfair is because his Japanese attorney said that people that have been in situations like his that have made a complete settlement—0% of them have gone to prison,” Brittany Alkonis, Ridge’s wife, told CNN’s Jake Tapper in an interview on “The Lead” on Wednesday.

Referring to the restitution payment, she told Tapper, “Our settlement, well, settlements in general, are very important. They’re a very important part of the Japanese judicial system. The one we made was incredibly large.”

Referring to the restitution payment, she told Tapper, “Our settlement, well, settlements in general, are very important. They’re a very important part of the Japanese judicial system. The one we made was incredibly large.”

No member of the US government has publicly said Alkonis did not receive a fair trial, but discussions have been taking place about bringing him back to the US to serve out his sentence, multiple sources told CNN.

Alkonis’ family and his supporters, including Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Rep. Mike Levin of California, have urged the Biden administration to do more to help free Alkonis. They have argued that he was improperly detained, put in solitary confinement, and interrogated by Japanese authorities for nearly a month after his arrest and before being charged, and that he did not receive a full medical evaluation after the accident that could have confirmed his mountain sickness.

“My husband was the victim of a medical emergency, yet he’s being treated like a criminal,” Brittany Alkonis said during a press conference on Wednesday. “Who is being punished the most by this injustice? It’s our three innocent children that miss their father every day.”

Twenty republican senators wrote to Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida earlier this month asking the Japanese government to consider expelling Alkonis, now serving a three-year prison sentence in Japan, as they made the case that the “full nature” of the situation had not been taken into consideration. They also noted that a Navy investigation concluded that Alkonis lost consciousness because of acute mountain sickness.

“With these considerations in mind, we respectfully and humbly ask that you will consider our request for the expulsion of Lieutenant Alkonis from Japan, allowing him to return to his wife and three children in the United States,” the senators wrote in a letter reviewed by CNN, laying out specifics about the incident such as there being no alcohol or drugs involved in the crash.

“We are extremely troubled by the three-year prison sentence Lieutenant Alkonis received on October 18, 2021,” they wrote. “Japanese nationals convicted of the same crime are routinely granted leniency. In fact, 95% of similarly charged defendants get a suspended sentence, meaning they do not serve prison time.” They did not provide a source for their claim about leniency being granted for similar cases.

This week the Japanese ambassador in Washington responded on behalf of the prime Minister to the letter, saying that the court verdict is final and that the government of Japan will continue to work with the US on “potential actions” going forward, Lee told CNN.

“I am encouraged by it,” Lee said of the response, adding that it “didn’t dismiss the possibility of expulsion and expressed a willingness and an inclination to continue working with the US to discuss potential actions going forward.”

Lee said that Japan could expel Alkonis based on the status of forces agreement between the two nations.

CNN has approached the Japanese embassy in Washington for comment.

A US Navy spokesperson told CNN that the Navy believes Alkonis’ sentence is “uncommonly disproportionate.”

“This was a tragic event that resulted in the loss of two precious lives, and tremendous pain for everyone involved,” said the spokeswoman, Cmdr. Katie Cerezo. “We respect the judicial process. However, we are disappointed with the result, which we believe is uncommonly disproportionate given the mitigating evidence.”

Discussions about a prisoner transfer

Multiple sources told CNN that the US government has been in contact with the Japanese government regarding the case, and that US Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel as well as national security adviser Jake Sullivan have been urging Japan to agree to a prisoner transfer in line with rules set out by the Council of Europe.

Essentially, the process would allow Alkonis to be transferred back to the US to carry out the rest of his sentence in an American prison, while the US sentencing commission reviews the appropriateness of his sentence.

“I think our posture as a government is to try to make for a better resolution to this matter, recognizing a ton of heartbreak from many people involved in this,” said an administration official when discussing the situation. “There’s a relatively regular dialogue between the US and Japan on this. It is not just a one-time thing.”

The National Security Council declined to comment.

Emanuel discussed the possibility of a prisoner transfer with Alkonis’ family in July, but a source close to the Alkonis family told CNN that the idea is “completely unacceptable” to Alkonis and his family.

“The family is not OK with Ridge coming back in handcuffs, and for him to be a felon in two countries,” the source said, adding that Alkonis would lose his right to vote in the US, among other penalties. The source added that the idea appeared to simply be an “easy out” that elements of the US government were considering.

Jonathan Franks, a spokesperson for the family, echoed that sentiment during Wednesday’s news conference. “The Council of Europe treaty, also known as a prisoner of transfer treaty, is not an acceptable remedy here for the family,” he said. “That would involve Ridge coming home in custody, going to federal prison, waiting some period of months for the sentencing commission to act, and affix a charge and a sentence to the foreign offense, which would leave him a felon in his own country, for something that would never have been charged in this country and that’s unacceptable.”

Franks added that “so far, none of the agencies nor the White House can explain an outcome under the prisoner transfer treaty that won’t be that, and it’s just not acceptable to ask someone that’s rendered extraordinary service to this country to come home in handcuffs.”

In addition to expelling Alkonis from Japan, there are other options the US could push Japan for, the source said, including urging the Japanese to commute Alkonis’ sentence or issue a pardon.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price said on Tuesday that the department is “continuing to monitor the situation with the Department of Defense and our embassy in Tokyo to explore all options for finding a successful resolution that is consistent with US law, with Japanese law, as well as with existing treaties.”

Price confirmed that Emanuel had spoken with the Alkonis family as well as with lawmakers, his US military counterparts, and Japanese government officials.

“Department of State officials here in Washington have also been in touch with their Japanese counterparts at the Japanese embassy here, and the embassy in Tokyo is coordinating with the Department of Defense to provide all appropriate assistance,” he said.

Time running out

Brittany Alkonis said on Wednesday, however, that time is running out — when her husband runs out of leave days from the US Navy, her family will lose “all pay and benefits,” she said.

“We will be forced to leave Japan with no income, no insurance, and it will be impossible for me and my kids to visit or even speak to Ridge for the next three years,” Brittany Alkonis said. She told Tapper that “if we leave, that means that we’ll go three years without seeing Ridge, without talking to Ridge, there are no phone privileges.” She said that since her husband has been imprisoned, she’s been allowed one 20-minute meeting with him.

Brittany Alkonis said she would remain at the White House today, tomorrow and as many days as it takes for her to be invited inside to have a meeting with the US government about her husband’s imprisonment.

Trevor Reed, an American citizen and Marine veteran who was imprisoned in Russia for two years, claimed Alkonis is being held in harsh prison conditions that give him little access to communicate with his family. Reed attended the protest in front of the White House.

“They’ve imprisoned him for three years, where he’s going to be in a place where he has the limited ability to even write and receive letters, no phone calls,” Reed said. “The conditions inside the Japanese prison are not a joke.”

Reed called on the White House and the Department of Defense to intervene.

“The United States has the ability to get Ridge out and to get him out immediately, so they need to do that,” Reed said.

The-CNN-Wire
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CNN’s Ellie Kaufman and Oren Liebermann contributed reporting.

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