U.S. Naval Officer Is Released From Jail in Japan After Yearslong Effort

Lt. Ridge Alkonis, a Navy officer imprisoned in Japan for causing a fatal car crash that resulted in the death of two members of a Japanese family, is now on his way back to the United States. This comes after a lengthy diplomatic effort by the Biden administration to secure his return. Lt. Alkonis, who was released from prison after serving half of his sentence for negligent driving, will likely continue serving his sentence in the United States under the International Prisoner Transfer Program. The duration of his incarceration will be determined by the U.S. Parole Commission, and they may choose to reduce his sentence or allow him to serve part of it in home confinement. While awaiting the commission’s decision, Lt. Alkonis will remain in detention in the United States.

The case of Lt. Alkonis has strained diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States. His family and supporters argue that he suffered from altitude sickness and was denied due process in a foreign court system that did not consider his guilty plea and repeated apologies. However, in Japan, Lt. Alkonis is widely seen as a criminal responsible for the loss of innocent lives. The court, following the victims’ family’s wishes, imposed a “severe penalty” and sentenced him to three years in prison after determining that he had fallen asleep due to drowsy driving.

President Biden personally engaged in discussions that led to Lt. Alkonis’s release, although these conversations were handled delicately to avoid insulting the Japanese government or undermining their judicial system. The family of Lt. Alkonis, along with members of Congress, campaigned extensively for his return, contending that he experienced a medical emergency while driving and should not be held fully responsible for the resulting deaths.

In a statement, the family expressed gratitude towards the Biden administration and expressed optimism about Lt. Alkonis’s release following the review of his case in the United States. Senator Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, has been at the forefront of the efforts to bring the sailor back. He even threatened to reconsider the U.S.-Japan military cooperation agreement if Lt. Alkonis was not allowed to return.

The involvement of President Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in securing Lt. Alkonis’s release was confirmed by administration officials. However, they emphasized that the release was not negotiated as a hostage exchange with an adversary. Instead, it was carried out in accordance with the prisoner transfer treaty and relevant U.S. laws governing the process.

The International Prisoner Transfer Program, established in 1977, aims to facilitate the rehabilitation of prisoners who face difficulties when detained in foreign countries where they do not speak the language. Transfers can only occur with the consent of both countries and the prisoner involved. Two weeks prior to the transfer, a U.S. official traveled to Japan to obtain Lt. Alkonis’s consent and ensure his understanding of the terms.

The Biden administration offered to provide the Parole Commission with information regarding Lt. Alkonis’s service record and any requested details. However, it is important to note that neither the White House nor the Justice Department has any authority in the commission’s decision-making process as per the law.

The decision to bring Lt. Alkonis back to the United States does not invalidate his conviction in Japan, nor does it signify that the Biden administration disputes the court’s findings.

Since assuming office, President Biden has instructed his national security team to prioritize the repatriation of Americans detained abroad. This has primarily involved individuals designated as “wrongly detained” by adversarial nations. Examples include Brittney Griner, an American basketball player detained in Russia, five Americans imprisoned in Iran, and several oil executives held in Venezuela. Additionally, several prisoners have been transferred back to the United States from more cooperative countries.

Lt. Ridge Alkonis, a Navy officer who was imprisoned in Japan for killing two members of a Japanese family in a car crash, is on his way back to the United States. After serving half his sentence for negligent driving, Lt. Alkonis was released from prison and is likely to continue serving his sentence in the United States under the International Prisoner Transfer Program. The length of his incarceration will be determined by the U.S. Parole Commission. The case has strained diplomatic ties between Japan and the United States, with Lt. Alkonis’s family and supporters claiming he suffered from altitude sickness and was denied due process. In Japan, he is viewed as a criminal. President Biden personally played a role in securing Lt. Alkonis’s release, but officials were careful not to offend the Japanese government. The family thanked the Biden administration and expressed hope that Lt. Alkonis would be released after a review of his case in the United States. Senator Mike Lee has been leading the effort to bring Lt. Alkonis home, threatening to reconsider the U.S.-Japan military cooperation agreement if he was not returned. The release was determined by the prisoner transfer treaty and U.S. laws. The program aims to facilitate the rehabilitation of prisoners detained in foreign countries. The decision to bring Lt. Alkonis back does not change his conviction in Japan and does not challenge the court’s conclusions. Since taking office, President Biden has prioritized the return of Americans detained abroad.

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