Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is scheduled to be in Washington on Friday, and a Utah senator says he needs to have imprisoned Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis with him.
In a long string of tweets Sunday and Monday on his personal account, including quoting a Wall Street Journal editorial calling for Alkonis’ return to the United States, Republican Sen. Mike Lee continued to push for the federal government to work with Japan to free the lieutenant.
“As I’ve worked on this case for more than 18 months, I’ve been left with the impression that DOD is way too concerned about offending the Japanese government, and thus being far too quiet and timid about Alkonis remaining (unfairly) in a Japanese prison,” Lee tweeted.
Alkonis was convicted of negligent driving in the deaths of an 85-year-old Japanese woman and her 54-year-old son-in-law on May 29, 2021, while the Alkonis family was driving down Mount Fuji after a day trip.
A Japanese judge determined Alkonis had fallen asleep at the wheel and lost control of his vehicle, which plowed into pedestrians and parked cars in a restaurant parking lot two hours from Yokosuka Naval Base, where he was serving as anti-submarine warfare officer.
But U.S. Navy investigators determined that Alkonis suffered from acute mountain sickness and lost consciousness. His wife and children said that he was not sleepy and appeared to black out. They said that once he passed out, he was unresponsive to their screams and one daughter’s kicks. He remained unconscious even during the crash itself.
President Joe Biden will hold talks with Kishida at the White House on Friday about North Korea, Ukraine and China’s tensions with Taiwan.
“When Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives in Washington later this week, he needs to have U.S. Navy Lt. Ridge Alkonis with him,” Lee tweeted.
Japan’s new defense strategy warns that Asia is facing the most challenging security environment since World War II, according to the Wall Street Journal editorial. Tokyo and Washington have to work together to deter China, and Beijing would benefit from cracks in the alliance.
“So it’s worth asking for Tokyo’s help in mending a growing rift by returning a U.S. Navy lieutenant locked up in a Japanese prison,” the editorial says.
Alknonis’ wife, Brittany Alkonis, praised the Journal article in a tweet Monday. She and Alkonis’ mother, Suzi Alkonis, plan to participate in a demonstration in Washington on Friday.
Alkonis started serving a three-year prison sentence in July. Lee said the accident wouldn’t have landed him in prison in the U.S. But even in Japan a lengthy prison sentence is likely only if the driver is a U.S. military officer.
“That’s MESSED UP,” the senator tweeted.
Lee has blasted how Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the Defense Department has handled the situation, and did so again this week.
“@SecDef, please show America that DOD cares more about securing the prompt return of Lt. Alkonis than about causing mild and momentary discomfort for a small handful of Japanese government officials,” Lee said.
Lee also tweeted at Biden to “please” bring Alkonis home.
“Japan shouldn’t treat U.S. military personnel more harshly than it treats its own citizens, but it has done so with Lt. Alkonis. That’s UNACCEPTABLE. @POTUS will have the chance to address the Alkonis case with Prime Minister Kishida on Friday. It’s time to #BringRidgeHome,” he also tweeted.
At a minimum, Lee said, Japan needs to transfer Alkonis to the United States to serve his sentence.
“That’s not too much to ask, and yet his transfer request has sat unaddressed by Japanese officials for months,” Lee tweeted. “This is so many kinds of WRONG!”
Late last year, the Defense Department declined to extend Alkonis’ pay and benefits while he’s in prison, citing a rule that says military members who are absent without leave forfeit their pay unless it is excused as unavoidable. The DOD maintains it doesn’t have the authority to waive the rule if a service member is confined by civil authorities after having been tried and convicted of a crime.
Lee, however, got unanimous consent to amend the government spending bill Congress passed just before Christmas to continue Alkonis’ pay while he’s in prison.