Tokyo Rejects Extradition of Alleged Spy

Associated Press Writer

March 29, 2004, 12:38 AM EST

TOKYO -- A Japanese court rejected a request Monday to extradite a medical researcher to the United States on charges of industrial espionage, the first time a court here has turned down an extradition sought by American authorities.

Tokyo High Court ruled that Takashi Okamoto, 43, a former researcher at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, could remain in Japan, said court spokeswoman Yukiko Morita.

Okamoto was charged in the United States in May 2001 with conspiracy, economic espionage and interstate shipment of stolen property related to Alzheimer's disease research.

According to a federal indictment, Okamoto left the United States on Aug. 17, 1999, a day after he and another Japanese man allegedly took genetic materials from a lab and left vials of tap water in their place.

Okamoto allegedly arranged for the materials to be sent to the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, north of Tokyo. He also allegedly destroyed other biological materials.

Judge Masaru Suda, however, ruled that Okamoto had not violated U.S. economic espionage laws because he had not acted with the intention of profiting from the research materials, reported the Yomiuri Shimbun, a major daily newspaper, on its Web site after Monday's verdict.

The Japanese Justice Ministry said it was the first time that Japan has denied a U.S. extradition request. Japan has extradited eight people to the United States on previous occasions.

Tokyo prosecutors took Okamoto into custody last month after Nozawa ordered them to start extradition proceedings. Court hearings began earlier this month.

Japan and the United States have an extradition treaty, but Tokyo only sends its citizens to face charges abroad if they have been accused of acts that are also illegal in Japan.

While Japan doesn't have any economic espionage laws, the Justice Ministry had argued that Okamoto's acts constituted theft and destruction of property under Japanese law.

It was not clear if the ministry would act further on the U.S. request. Justice Minister Daizo Nozawa said he "solemnly" accepted Monday's decision.

Okamoto, now a doctor at a hospital on Japan's northernmost main island of Hokkaido, says he is innocent. He says he didn't think his actions were criminal, according to local media reports.

Copyright © 2004, The Associated Press