A court in Japan has given an antiwhaling activist a suspended two-year prison term after finding him guilty of disrupting the country’s whaling fleet and assaulting a crew member during clashes in the Antarctic earlier this year.
The Tokyo district court also found Peter Bethune, a former member of the Sea Shepherd conservation group, guilty of trespassing, vandalism, and possession of a knife after he boarded the Shonan Maru 2 security vessel in February. Mr. Bethune, who had contested the assault charge, had faced up to 15 years in prison.
His supporters called the court's decision a response to mounting international condemnation of Japan's research whaling program and fears that the activist's imprisonment could become a rallying point for more protests.
Bethune will be deported to his native New Zealand on Friday, his lawyers said.
Speaking after the verdict, Mr. Bethune said, “I am very relieved and thankful at the decision from the Japanese court and immensely grateful to my legal team here in Japan.
“I am truly sorry for all the trouble and worry this has caused my family and am desperate to get back home to see them. I also want to thank all the supporters worldwide who have been sending messages and signing petitions, and the media, who have been keeping this story in the public eye.”
Bethune, dressed in a black suit and carrying a note pad, showed no emotion when the verdict was delivered. Outside the court building, police scuffled with a handful of right-wing extremists who labeled the campaigner a terrorist and called for him to be hanged.
‘Act of sabotage’
The court heard how, in February, Bethune had leaped aboard the Shonan Maru 2 from a jet ski under cover of darkness and cut the ship’s security nets.
He had planned to carry out a citizen’s arrest of the captain, Hiroyuki Komura, over the sinking the previous month of his high-tech speedboat, the Ady Gil, and to present him with a $3 million bill for the damage.
Instead, he was held aboard the whaling ship and arrested as soon as it returned to Japan in March.
The judge, Takashi Tawada, said Sea Shepherd had carried out “acts of sabotage” against the whaling fleet, adding that Bethune had "assaulted two crewmembers and interfered with their mission, with extremely serious consequences. His actions are based on his selfish beliefs.”
The group said it was delighted with the verdict and described Bethune as a hero of the antiwhaling movement.
“Captain Bethune is an inspiration in courage and dedication, and his efforts, his sacrifice, and his resolve will not be forgotten,” it said in a statement.
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.”
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.