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A U.S. Navy lieutenant and Mormon missionary living in Japan has been sentenced to what his family calls a “shocking” three years in prison after at least two people were killed in a traffic accident doctors said may have been caused by a medical episode.
The family of Lt. Ridge Alkonis, through information compiled by the Pipe Hitter Foundation (PHF), alleges several violations of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) between the U.S. and Japan, and some members of Congress are also speaking out against his confinement – which began Tuesday at 1PM JST.
The PHF said in a document describing Alkonis’ situation other military families are now “acutely aware that this terrible situation could have been them” and are in “fear” that SOFA may be allegedly violated again in the future.
Alkonis, who lived with his family in Yokosuka, had just finished a hike on the famed Mount Fuji shortly before he was scheduled to be deployed on the U.S.S. Benfold. Outside his military duties, he was also part of a mission with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
While driving into the city of Fujinomiya, Alkonis lost consciousness and the family’s vehicle drifted out of its lane and crashed into parked cars at a restaurant, killing a woman and her son-in-law.
The PHF said Alkonis was not immediately taken to a hospital, but instead arrested and detained in solitary confinement for nearly a month. Neurologists eventually diagnosed him with Acute Mountain Sickness, which can cause sudden fainting up to 24 hours after rapid altitudinal change.
The Alkonis family stated they also offered customary ‘gomenasai’ – or apology – and wrote condolences to the family in addition to negotiating a record $1.65 million gomensai settlement.
Gomensai has a “high value” in the Japanese justice system, according to Alkonis’ father Derek, who spoke to Fox News earlier this month. The Alkonises expected a suspended sentence, which the PHF said is considered “the norm” in such cases when remorse is shown – but Ridge was still sentenced.
Mother Suzi Alkonis told “Fox News @ Night” that prosecutors claimed Ridge fell asleep while driving, which was incorrect. She said: “He wasn’t tired. He never felt sleepy. He never said so. He was mid-sentence with his daughter when he slumped to the side unconscious – that’s not falling asleep.”
While the Japanese Supreme Court – which like the U.S. bench chooses its cases itself – could eventually hear Ridge’s plea, Suzy Alkonis said it may be up to the Biden White House to secure a deal with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to bring her son home.
Alkonis’ case has brought about rare bipartisanship on Capitol Hill, with some members of both parties calling for his release and condemning the actions of the Japanese judiciary.
One Senate lawmaker who has been prominent in advocating for Ridge Alkonis’ release is Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, who took to the Senate floor on Monday.
“I find it nothing short of inexcusable that an American who experienced a medical emergency should be treated so poorly by an Allied nation that he’s protecting,” Lee said.
“Clearly the Japanese judicial system is trying to make an example of Lt. Alkonis – perhaps stemming from a history of disputes over our Status of Forces Agreement,” he said. “He is being targeted because he is an American – and because he was in the unfortunate position of having suffered a medical emergency that resulted in tragedy.”
Lee said the case is “no way for a friendly nation to treat a friendly nation” – adding it is difficult to make such a pronouncement because of the otherwise important, positive relationship between America and Japan.
“We’ve been allies for a long time,” Lee continued, going on to echo other Alkonis advocates and call on President Biden to make a priority out of Ridge’s case.
Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who Biden appointed U.S. Ambassador to Japan, should take immediate steps to secure Alkonis’ release, the senator added.
“It’s not just about Ridge Alkonis and his family. It’s about the security and confidence needed by every service family in the American armed forces deployed whether in Japan or anywhere else – they need to know that we’ve (the U.S.A.) got their backs.”
On the Democratic side, Rep. Mike Levin of California expressed what he called “deep concern over the Japanese government’s handling of Lt. Ridge Alkonis [and his case].”
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Levin said the U.S. Navy opposes Alkonis’ sentence, adding his office is working with the Pentagon to support his family.
“I will not be giving up on Lt. Alkonis and the Department of Defense must not either,” he said.
A statement on the Pipe Hitter Foundation-linked fundraising page for Lt. Alkonis said late Monday U.S. time that “domestic political interference is highly suspected—information has been revealed that the son-in-law of one of the victims works at the same office that prosecuted Lt. Alkonis.”
“One of the victim’s daughters is an attorney who represented all of the victims and refused to accept any letters of apology by Lt. Alkonis as customary under Japanese law, which directly resulted in the dismissal of his appeal and request for a suspended sentence.