Japan gives anti-whaling activist suspended jail term
Peter Bethune, who has been in Japanese detention since February, was to be deported on Friday.
Wed, Jul 07, 2010 at 04:37 AM
FREED: A group of anti-Sea Shepherd protesters hold banners and pictures outside Tokyo District Court during Peter Bethune’s trial. (Photo: Koji Sasahara/AP)
A New Zealand anti-whaling activist received a suspended two-year jail term Wednesday over clashes with Japanese whalers in Antarctic waters in which he hurled stink bombs and scaled a harpoon ship.
Peter Bethune, 45, was convicted in Tokyo of injuring a whaler by hurling a rancid butter stink bomb during the latest high-seas campaign by the US-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and of four other charges.
Bethune, who has been in detention since February, was to be deported on Friday, said Sea Shepherd, which hailed him as a hero and "an inspiration in courage and dedication" for helping save hundreds of the ocean giants.
The activist had pleaded guilty to obstructing commercial activities and charges stemming from climbing aboard the Japanese ship — trespass, vandalism and carrying a knife, with which he cut the ship's security netting.
But he denied the charge of assault, in which prosecutors said a 24-year-old whaler suffered chemical splash burns to his face during a February 11 confrontation when activists hurled the stink bombs.
The judge said rancid butter, or butyric acid, is an "extremely dangerous chemical substance" and noted that the chemical burn on the face of crew member Takashi Komimami had taken about one week to heal.
He said the court had suspended the jail term because Bethune had no criminal record in Japan, had apologized and paid for the net, and because his group had said he would join no more Antarctic missions.
"The defendant is sentenced to two years' imprisonment, suspended for five years from the day of this verdict," said chief judge Takashi Tawada in Tokyo District Court, ending the high-profile trial.
Bethune did not talk, but his lawyer said the father-of-two had written on a note: "I'm looking forward to seeing my family, my friends."
Japan hunts whales under a loophole in an international moratorium that allows killing of the sea mammals for what it calls "scientific research", although the meat is later sold openly in shops and restaurants.
Many Japanese defend whaling as a centuries-old cultural tradition.
About a dozen right-wing nationalist protesters with loudspeakers demonstrated outside the court, watched over by about 30 riot police and sometimes scuffling with the officers.
"Give him real punishment," yelled one angry, kimono-clad protester before the verdict, while others waved signs that read "Give him the death penalty," "Terrorist Sea Shepherd" and "Capital Punishment."
The Sea Shepherd group has pursued and harassed Japanese whalers in Antarctic waters for years — most recently in the 2009-2010 season, a campaign that both sides say reduced the Japanese cull by several hundred whales.
In their annual clashes, the adversaries regularly trade icy jets from water cannon, while the environmentalists also hurl blood-red paint containers.
Bethune was captain of the group's futuristic carbon-and-kevlar powerboat, the trimaran Ady Gil, which sank after a January 6 collision with the Japanese fleet's security ship the Shonan Maru II.
On February 15 before dawn Bethune boarded the Shonan Maru II from a jet ski, with the stated intention of making a citizen's arrest of its captain and presenting him with a $3 million bill for the Ady Gill.
Instead, he was detained and taken back to Japan, where he was formally arrested on March 12 and has been in detention since.
Sea Shepherd has said Bethune will not join its future actions after taking a bow and arrows on his Antarctic mission, contrary to Sea Shepherd's stance of "aggressive but non-violent direct action."
But on Wednesday it praised him and said the Shonan Maru II's Captain Hiroyuki Komura should have been on trial instead for ramming the Ady Gil.
"When you're willing to risk your life to save the whales, five months as a Japanese prisoner is a good trade-off for the lives saved."
Copyright 2010 AFP Global Edition