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(LEAD) S. Korea gets more legal jurisdiction over U.S. troops: official

All Headlines 17:09 May 23, 2012

(ATTN: ADDS details, quotes in paras 4-7, photo; TRIMS)

SEOUL, May 23 (Yonhap) -- The U.S. military in South Korea agreed Wednesday to give more legal jurisdiction to Seoul authorities over serious crimes involving U.S. troops before they are charged, a Seoul official said.

The agreement, reached after a regular meeting earlier in the day over the bilateral Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that governs the legal status of U.S. troops stationed in South Korea, came nearly nine months after two American soldiers were accused of raping 18-year-old girls in South Korea in separate incidents.

Under the revised agreement, Korean law enforcement officials can take U.S. military personnel into custody before the suspect is charged in cases of heinous crimes such as murder or rape, said a senior official at Seoul's foreign ministry.

"With the new agreement, we can extradite a suspect from the U.S. military even before an indictment," the official said on the condition of anonymity.

South Korea's legal authorities can hold the arrested suspect under custody until a preliminary investigation is completed under the presence of U.S. government officials, according to the official.

"It will help our investigation authorities conduct an investigation more effectively, thereby contributing to strengthening our criminal jurisdiction," the official said.

Currently, SOFA only gives South Korean police the right to take U.S. military personnel into custody if the suspect is caught red-handed in such serious crimes. Critics say the rules go too far in protecting U.S. soldiers.

South Korea and the U.S. military also agreed to remove a contentious clause in the SOFA rules, the official said.

The clause called for Korean prosecutors to indict an American military suspect within 24 hours of taking custody of the suspect.

"In case of serious crimes, it was unrealistic for a prosecutor to indict a suspect within 24 hours," the official said.

Wednesday's meeting was led by Lee Baek-soon, the director-general of the foreign ministry's North American Affairs Bureau, and Lt. Gen. Jan-Marc Jouas, the deputy commander of the U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), ministry officials said.

Officials at the U.S. Forces Korea in Seoul were not immediately available for comment. About 28,500 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea to defend against North Korea.

kdh@yna.co.kr
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