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Soldier's kin say visit blocked

Cite plea pressure in desertion case

TOKYO -- American family members of accused US Army deserter Charles Jenkins said yesterday they were blocked from seeing their long-lost relative at a Tokyo hospital because US and Japanese officials want to quickly settle the matter of the former sergeant, possibly through a plea bargain.

Jenkins' nephew, James Hyman, and his wife, Shirlee, made those assertions amid media reports that the Japanese government was urging Jenkins toward a plea bargain. US officials have been talking about taking Jenkins into custody after doctors cleared him of serious medical problems.

Jenkins, who is being treated at a Tokyo hospital, is wanted by the United States for allegedly abandoning his South Korean post in 1965 and defecting to North Korea. Under a bilateral agreement with Tokyo, US authorities can take custody of Jenkins in Japan.

The Hymans denied the charges against Jenkins and said they were blocked from seeing him to prevent them from showing him a letter from the US Army indicating that evidence used to back his desertion case did not exist.

"The Japanese government and the American government are keeping everyone away from him so that we won't be able to tell him: 'This is what we know. This is what we got,' " Shirlee Hyman said.

James Hyman, who said he was close to Jenkins as a child, expressed disbelief when Japanese officials told him Friday that Jenkins did not want to see him and refused to let him call him.

Referring to Jenkins by his middle name, James Hyman said: "We were very excited for Robert to come to Japan so he could be free at last, but now I wonder if he really is, when he can't see his own family due to political concerns."

Jenkins was brought here by the Japanese government because of strong public sympathy for his Japanese wife, Hitomi Soga, who was kidnapped by North Korea years ago but returned to Japan.

Tokyo wants Jenkins to be able to settle in Japan with Soga and their two North Korean-born daughters. Washington has said it plans to pursue its case against Jenkins, who could face life in prison if convicted of desertion.

Media reports yesterday indicated that Tokyo was eager to persuade Jenkins to enter a plea bargain, instead of fighting the charges, as the best way to keep the family united.

Jenkins seemed open to the idea in talks with Japanese government officials, Kyodo News agency said.

Shirlee Hyman said she thought Jenkins would be persuaded to accept such an arrangement. "He is a 64-year-old man," she said. "It is much easier to plea-bargain your way out than to fight your way out at that age.

"We have to remember he is fighting the government and that could be a never-ending battle. He does not have that time."

Kyodo reported later yesterday that Richard Lawless, the US deputy undersecretary for defense, denied that Washington was considering such a deal.

Jenkins and his daughters were separated from Soga in October 2002, when she left North Korea alone for Japan.

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