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Beheading of Japanese Citizen Leaves Tokyo With Agonizing Choice

The Islamic State murdered one of its two Japanese hostages. Now, the group is demanding the release of a prisoner for the life of the second.

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The Islamic State beheaded one of the two Japanese citizens it has been holding, but signaled a potential willingness to negotiate over the fate of the other one — offering a tiny sliver of hope to a Japan reeling from shock and grief.

Islamic State had militants demanded $200 million — the exact amount promised by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe last week to help fight the group — for the release of hostages Haruna Yukawa and journalist Kenji Goto. SITE Intelligence, an organization that tracks terrorist propaganda, confirmed the authenticity of a video containing an image of Goto holding a picture of a decapitated Yukawa. On Friday, the deadline to pay the ransom passed.

Now, militants are demanding the release of Sajida Mubarak al-Rishawi, a woman facing the death penalty in Jordan for her role in a 2005 bombing there, in exchange for Goto’s life. That is a significant demand but is at least — unlike the ransom demand — at least in the realm of the possible. That means Tokyo may still have a chance to bring its missing citizen home.

“It is simple. You give them Sajida and I will be released. At the moment, it actually looks possible and our government are indeed a stone’s throw away. How? Our government representatives are ironically in Jordan, where their sister Sajida is held prisoner by the Jordanian regime” a voice of a man who claimed to be Goto says in the three-minute video released Saturday.

Yukawa’s death caps an agonizing stretch for Japan and is certain to impact Japan’s ongoing debate over Article 9 of the U.S.-authored Japanese constitution mandating pacifism.

In 2003, then-Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi ignored lawmakers’ objections and sent 1,000 troops to Iraq to support the U.S. mission there. In the summer of 2014, Abe scrapped restrictions forbidding Japanese troops from deploying overseas. In December 2014, Abe proposed removing constitutional restraints on the Japanese military, angering long-time rival China. Now, with one citizen brutally murdered and the fate of a second unknown, Japan could will to decide whether to become more involved in the U.S.-led campaign in Iraq and Syria or whether to choose a more isolationist path that could avoid further inflaming anti-Japanese sentiment among the militants.

The new Islamic State demand also raises the question of whether nations should negotiate for the release of hostages held by terrorists On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough reiterated the United States would not barter with the Islamic State over hostages. But there were indications from Tokyo that government officials were in touch with the group, suggesting that some sort of ransom was being considered.

“We have been pursuing every possible means including all available diplomatic channels, first and foremost, to save lives of the two Japanese nationals,” Abe said in a statement. “The government of Japan will never give in to terrorism.”

Yukawa’s killing drew widespread condemnation from U.S. officials over the weekend.

“America has known this pain and horror ourselves, and we stand with Japan not just in sadness, but in solidarity and strength,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.

“We stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally Japan and applaud its commitment to peace and development in a region far from its shores,” President Barack Obama added in a statement of his own.

Photo Credit: Anadolu Agency

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