Ex-US Marine gets life for murder and rape of Okinawa woman

FILE - In this May 20, 2016, file photo, police officers escort Kenneth Shinzato, center, an American working on a U.S. military base in Okinawa, out of Uruma Police Station in Uruma on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa to turn him over to the public prosecutor's office on suspicion of abandoning the body of a woman who disappeared in April 2016. A Japanese court has convicted a U.S. military contractor of murder and rape of a then 20-year-old woman on Okinawa, sentencing him to life in prison. The Naha district court on Friday, Dec. 1, 2017 ruled that Kenneth Shinzato, a former Marine, was also convicted of abandoning the victim’s body. The woman was found in the forest in May, three weeks after she had disappeared while taking a walk. (Ryosuke Ozawa/Kyodo News via AP, File)

TOKYO - A Japanese court on Friday convicted a U.S. military contractor of murder and rape charges in the death of an Okinawa woman and sentenced him to life in prison.

The Naha District Court also found Kenneth Shinzato, a former Marine, guilty of abandoning the victim's body, court officials said. The 20-year-old woman was found in the forest in May, three weeks after she disappeared while taking a walk.

Shinzato was accused of hitting the woman in the head with a club, intending to rape her and stabbing her to death in the neck with a knife. He pleaded guilty to the charges of rape resulting in death and abandoning of the body, but denied murder intent.

Judge Toshihiro Shibata upheld prosecutors' demand for life imprisonment, saying there was no room for leniency, Kyodo News reported.

The case sparked outrage on the southern Japanese island where residents have long complained about heavy U.S. military presence and crimes linked to them. The anger led to a bilateral pact limiting immunity from Japanese prosecution for civilian workers at American bases.

Okinawa has also protested a contentious plan to relocate a Marine Corps air station in the crowded neighbourhood of Futenma to a less-populated part of the island. The plan developed after a military aircraft accident near the current base and the 1995 rape of a girl by three American servicemen enraged Okinawans, but has since made little progress due to protests. Opponents want the air station completely removed from the island.

Half of about 50,000 American troops stationed in Japan are on Okinawa.

The U.S. military says the crime rate among its ranks in Japan is lower than among the general public.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government wants Japan to play a greater military role internationally and in Japan-U.S. security alliance amid escalating missile and nuclear threats from North Korea.

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