Greenpeace Japan Anti-whaling Activists Found Guilty of Theft

AOMORI, Japan, September 6, 2010 (ENS) – The Aomori District Court sentenced two Greenpeace Japan activists Monday to suspended one-year prison terms for trespassing and theft of whale meat from a transport company branch in Aomori Prefecture.

Greenpeace condemned the sentences as “disproportionate and unjust” although they were suspended for three years, saying Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki acted in the public interest by exposing embezzlement and corruption in the Japanese government’s Southern Ocean whaling program.

Sato and Suzuki were convicted of breaking into an Aomori branch of Seino Transportation Co. on April 16, 2008, and stealing a 23 kilogram (50 pound) cardboard box of whale meat worth about 58,905 yen (US$700).

Outside the Aomori courthouse, from left: Greenpeace International Executive Director Dr. Kumi Naidoo, Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki face the media. September 6, 2010. (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)

Aomori prosecutors argued successfully that Suzuki and Sato should have brought their allegations to authorities before taking the meat and demanded a 18-month prison term for each of them.

The activists said they took the box of whale meat from the whaling factory ship the Nisshin Maru as evidence that it was destined for private use, which breaches the regulations of Japan’s taxpayer-funded “research” whaling program.

The court ruled, “Even if the defendants’ act is a valid one for the purpose of public benefit, the criminal act in question is beyond the level acceptable as a research activity.”

“It is obvious the defendants had the intention of illegally obtaining the whale meat because they handled the meat in a way only the owners of the meat can do, including opening the box they took, confirming the content was whale meat and taking it as a sample,” the court ruling declared.

Sato and Suzuki said they will appeal the ruling.

Sato said, “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.”

“The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on which our defense was based, supersedes domestic criminal law, but the judgement did not properly take this into account,” Sato said.

“This sentence is totally disproportionate and completely undeserved,” said Suzuki. “We set out to reveal the truth about the government’s whaling program, but instead have been punished, while those behind the misuse of public money walk free.”

Following the news of the verdict Greenpeace supporters hung black flags and banners outside Japanese embassies around the world, to signal that the judgement cast a dark shadow over democracy and civil rights.

While commercial whaling has been banned by international treaty since 1986, Japan hunts whales, claiming it needs to kill more than 1,000 whales a year to conduct scientific research. Whale meat from the hunts is sold for human consumption.

Boxes of whale meat caught by Japanese whalers in the Antarctic whale sanctuary in the Southern Ocean. (Photo by Hiroto Kiryu courtesy Greenpeace)

In January 2008, Greenpeace began an investigation into insider allegations that organized whale meat embezzlement was being conducted by crew members of Japan’s whaling vessel Nisshin Maru, owned by Kyodo Senpaku, which operates the business of hunting whales and selling whalemeat.

Following a tip from a former Nisshin Maru crewmember, Sato and Suzuki began an investigation. They found evidence that cardboard boxes containing whale meat were being secretly shipped to the homes of whaling fleet crew members, and then sold for personal profit.

Greenpeace Japan held a news conference May 15, 2008, to show the whale meat to the media as evidence of embezzlement and gave it to Tokyo prosecutors to ask them to investigate five days later.

Five days later Sato delivered a box of this whale meat to the Tokyo Prosecutors’ Office and filed a report of embezzlement. Prosecutors dropped the embezzlement investigation on June 20. On that day that Sato and Suzuki were arrested and held for 26 days, 23 of the days without charge.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention called the detention a breach of their human rights and said it was politically motivated.

Kyodo Senpaku Director Makoto Ito explained to the court that crew members are allowed to take home about 10 kg of whale meat as a souvenir and said the sender of the box Suzuki and Sato took contained some whale meat from other crew members who did not want it.

In Stockholm, Sweden, Greenpeace supporters protest the conviction of Sato and Suzuki. September 6, 2010. (Photo by Christian Aslund courtesy Greenpeace)

During their trial, Greenpeace says whalers and whaling officials “consistently contradicted their own and each others’ evidence about the embezzlement.”

“Activists are not criminals, and to treat them as such has a chilling effect in society, undermining the quality of democracy,” said Greenpeace International Executive Director Dr. Kumi Naidoo, who travelled to Japan to hear the verdict.

“The freedom to peacefully expose wrongdoing is not only a crucial part of any democracy, it is a right that must be defended,” Naidoo said. “Greenpeace will continue to make this case a global priority until this unjust conviction is overturned.”

International law expert and defense witness in the case, Professor Dirk Voorhoof of Ghent University in Belgium, agrees, saying the sentence “discourages other organizations and journalists from investigating and reporting misconduct by the authorities.”

“The Tokyo Two’s treatment was already a violation of international human rights law. While a suspended sentence is preferable to a jail term, it still constitutes a further failure to respect the rights of two activists who should never have been arrested and charged in the first place,” Voorhoof said.

The case of Sato and Suzuki has attracted international attention, from senior political figures, including Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, international human rights groups and legal experts.

During a visit to Japan earlier this year, the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navi Pillay, expressed concern about the case particularly with regard to freedom of expression and association. She emphasized the importance of investigations by nongovernmental organizations to society in general and said their work should be respected.

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