Greenpeace activists Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki -- dubbed the "Tokyo Two" by their organization -- received suspended sentences for taking a package from a delivery company in April 2008 that was filled with prime whale meat and addressed to the home of a crewmember on one of Japan's research whaling vessels.
The pair, acting on a tip from a former whaler that crews were privately taking and selling whale meat that rightfully belongs to the government, delivered the package along with an explanation of their investigation to the Tokyo Prosecutors`Office the following month. But rather than resulting in government action on the alleged practice, the two were soon arrested and charged.
This is the second recent case in which prosecutors have taken action against opponents of Japan's whaling industry. In July New Zealander Peter Bethune was handed a two-year suspended sentence for illegally boarding a Japanse whaling vessel in the Southern Ocean as part of an effort to disrupt whaling by Sea Shepherds activists.
The verdict was “a partial vindication, because the two activists are not going to prison,” said Kumi Naidoo, the International Executive Director of Greenpeace who was in Japan for the end of the trial. Dr. Naidoo compared the pair to Gandhi and Mandela and said he had wanted them to be fully exonerated.
A brief investigation into embezzlement in Japan’s “scientific whaling” industry was dropped in June 2008 and the pair arrested following dramatic raids involving dozens of policemen and in front of the media, who had been tipped-off by the police.
The trial began in February this year, despite protests from the defense team that there was no case to answer as the investigation had been in the public interest and there had been no intention to profit from taking the meat.
With the conviction rate in Japanese criminal trials still running at over 99 percent, despite the introduction last year of a jury-like lay judge system, the chances for the activists were never good.
The court acknowledged that there had been “dubious practices” in the whaling industry and that the two had not sought to profit, but found them guilty and said that it would be insufficient to punish their offences with fines or a warning.
“The activists’ actions were clearly not criminal in nature, and they acted solely in the public interest to expose theft of Japanese taxpayers’ money,” said Naidoo, who called on the government to open an inquiry into corruption in its subsidized whaling industry.
"While the court acknowledged that there were questionable practices in the whaling industry, it did not recognize the right to expose these, as is guaranteed under international law,” said defendant Sato. “The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on which our defense was based, supercedes domestic criminal law, but the judgment did not properly take this into account."
The prosecution had sought terms of 18 months for the accused. Instead they received 12-month suspended sentences. But according to Sato the verdict sends a message that “if you do something like this, you can be imprisoned.”
Greenpeace says it will appeal the verdict.