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Whale wars: Japanese court lets Sea Shepherd activist go home

A court in Japan gave Sea Shepherd activist Peter Bethune a suspended two-year jail term Wednesday. During last winter's annual 'whale wars,' he sneaked onto a whaling ship to try to arrest its captain for sinking the Ady Gil speedboat.

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Sea Shepherd said the trial, and the recent success of The Cove – an Oscar-winning documentary about Japan’s annual dolphin hunt – had turned the mammals’ slaughter into “the most embarrassing foreign affairs issue currently scandalizing the Japanese government.”

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Dan Harris, a Sea Shepherd lawyer, said Japan was aware of the risks of putting Bethune behind bars.

“I’m happy because Pete gets to go home and because Japan responded somewhat to world pressure,” he told the Monitor. “The judge knew that having him in a Japanese prison would remind the world every day of what Japan is doing in the Southern Ocean.

“Japan feels very put upon about the whaling issue, but the idea that Sea Shepherd or Pete have it in for Japan is ridiculous. They’re only interested in saving whales.”

Leaving Sea Shepherd

During his trial, Sea Shepherd said it would no longer involve Bethune in its antiwhaling campaign after he had breached the group’s commitment to nonviolence by keeping a bow and arrows on board the Ady Gil.

During his five months in detention, Bethune had indicated he no longer wished to be associated with the group, a move that may have persuaded the court to suspend his sentence.

Last month, Bethune expressed remorse for the incident in which a crew member sustained facial burns after being struck by a bottle of butyric acid during clashes with activists.

“I did not have the intention of hurting crew members,” Bethune said in a statement he tearfully read out in Japanese. “I took action because I wanted to stop Japan's illegal whaling.

“Japan says it is conducting research whaling, but it is conducting commercial whaling that is prohibited, and many countries acknowledge that."

Although the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling in 1986, Japan is permitted to kill about 900 whales, mainly minke, every winter for so-called scientific research. Sea Shepherd has been pursuing the fleet since late 2005, trying to disrupt the hunt by hurling stink bombs onto the decks of the Japanese ships, attempting to obstruct the harpoonists' view of their prey, or using ropes to entangle the ships' rudders and propellers.

The Japanese fleet blamed harassment by Sea Shepherd after it returned to port this spring with just over half its target catch.

It is unclear what Bethune will do on his return to New Zealand, but he vowed to maintain pressure on the Australian and New Zealand maritime authorities to force Japan's whaling fleet to cooperate with their investigation into the sinking of the Ady Gil.

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