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Japan Turns Down US Extradiction Request in Espionage Case - 2004-03-29

A Japanese researcher indicted in the United States on industrial espionage charges has been released from detention by a court in Tokyo. The court rejected a U.S. request to extradite the doctor.

Medical researcher Takashi Okamoto was freed from jail on Monday shortly after the Tokyo High Court turned down the U.S. request to extradite him in the unprecedented case.

Dr. Okamoto was taken into custody February 2 when the court began deliberating the case, nearly two years after the United States requested his extradition.

Dr. Okamoto was indicted in the U.S. state of Ohio in May 2001 on charges of stealing genetic materials from a Cleveland research facility where he worked nearly five years ago.

Dr. Okamoto, who was researching Alzheimer's Disease, told the Tokyo Broadcasting System on Monday he had done nothing criminal. Dr. Okamoto says he certainly broke no laws because the materials that he took from the laboratory were his property and had no proprietary value.

The Tokyo District Court on Monday rejected the prosecutors' contention that the researcher should be sent to the United States to face trial because his action corresponded to theft and destruction of property under Japanese laws. There is no industrial espionage law in Japan.

The decision marks the first time Japan has rejected a U.S. extradition request since a bilateral extradition treaty went into effect in 1980.

The Justice Ministry says Japan has extradited 31 people to the United States under the treaty, including eight Japanese citizens. Japan's government says its policy is to only send its citizens to face charges abroad if they have been accused of acts that are also illegal in Japan. The only other country with which Japan has an extradition agreement is South Korea.

In his decision Judge Masaru Suda said there would be insufficient evidence to convict Dr. Okamoto in the United States.

Some legal experts, reacting to the judge's decision, questioned his reasoning.

"It really is inappropriate for a judge in Japan to be saying whether or not this person violated or did not violate U.S. law because that is strictly a question for the U.S. court to determine," says Robert Grondine, a Tokyo-based lawyer and chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan.

Dr. Okamoto - and another Japanese researcher against whom charges were subsequently dropped - were the first people ever charged with economic espionage in the United States. Dr. Okamoto was also charged with conspiracy and interstate shipment of stolen property. The federal indictment alleged that the two took genetic materials from the Ohio lab and left behind vials of tap water in their place.

After returning to Japan, Dr. Okamoto began working at a research institute affiliated with the Japanese government and arranged for the genetic materials to be shipped there. He is now employed as a physician at a hospital in northern Japan.