Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, said Sunday that the White House is working “extremely hard” on the case of a US Navy officer jailed in Japan but declined to say whether President Joe Biden had brought it up during his trip to the country.
“There are certain times when saying less in public and more in private is the best way to resolve these cases. This is one of those instances,” Sullivan said on “State of the Union” when asked if Biden had raised the case of Lt. Ridge Alkonis with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida during his trip to Hiroshima for the Group of Seven summit, which concluded Sunday.
On Friday, a pair of Democratic lawmakers from California had asked Biden to once again bring up the issue with Kishida.
In a letter addressed to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, US Sen. Alex Padilla and US Rep. Mike Levin said that “while we understand the sensitive nature of this case” around Lt. Ridge Alkonis, “it is important to resolve this situation promptly to prevent further irritants in the U.S.-Japan relationship.”
“Lieutenant Alkonis has served almost a year in Japanese prison after being involved in a tragic and unforeseeable car accident due to a medical emergency he suffered while driving. Despite your repeated interventions from your Administration, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Ambassador Rahm Emanuel. Lieutenant Alkonis’ case remains stalled in the Japanese system,” the pair wrote.
Alkonis, who was stationed in Japan, was sentenced to three years in Japanese prison in October 2021 for negligent driving resulting in the death of two people and injuries to a third person in May 2021. CNN previously reported that Alkonis said he suffered from acute mountain sickness as he was driving with his family from Mount Fuji, which caused him to lose consciousness. That argument was rejected by the court, and his appeal was denied in July 2022.
Biden raised the Alkonis case with Kishida during the prime minister’s visit to the White House in January, and the two countries agreed to establish a working group to solve the problem. But Alkonis has since expressed despair about his situation, according to a handwritten note to his wife.
“I’m not doing that good,” he wrote in a letter dated April 30, which was shared with CNN. “The walls and bars seem to be making my cell even smaller as of late.”
His family has requested that he be transferred back to the US under the Council of Europe’s Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons, which would allow him to serve out his sentence there.
Alkonis’ wife, Brittany Alkonis, told CNN earlier this week that parts of the US government have been “incredibly proactive” on that request but claimed that the US Department of Defense as well as the Japanese government had not productively engaged. Ridge Alkonis has not been designated as wrongfully detained by the US State Department.
“Prison has always been a hard place. You know, he talks about how just anything that would bring you happiness is not allowed. He says it’s just soul crushing,” Brittany Alkonis told CNN.
“Lieutenant Alkonis’ service records make clear that he is an extraordinary officer, and we believe he deserves better,” the Democratic lawmakers wrote to Biden and Harris. “We ask that you insist on a prompt prisoner transfer under the Council of Europe Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons, so that he, his wife, and their three young children can be reunited in California.”
Brittany Alkonis and her children have been able to visit Ridge Alkonis every few weeks in prison, with the current setup allowing for five half-hour visits per month, she said. Her children – all under the age of ten years old – are the ones who are “paying the price” for this challenging situation, she said.
“They’re hurting. They try to make sense of this. We talk about it all the time,” Brittany Alkonis said. “But my son asked me the other day, he said, ‘Mommy, you said the president is getting daddy home, then why isn’t he home yet.’”
This story and headline have been updated with additional details.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler and Kylie Atwood contributed to this report.