Friday, March 12, 2010

Japanese Coast Guard Arrests Anti-Whaling Skipper


March 12, 2010


Japanese Coast Guard Arrests Anti-Whaling Skipper


TOKYO — The Japanese Coast Guard on Friday arrested an anti-whaling activist from New Zealand who had boarded a whaling ship in the southern Antarctic last month.

Peter Bethune, a member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, was brought back to Tokyo by the whaling ship, the Shonan Maru 2, after he boarded it without permission on Feb. 15. Coast Guard officials were waiting for him at the docks in Tokyo, along with a throng of Japanese reporters and television crews.

Mr. Bethune, 44, was being held in Coast Guard custody in Tokyo, said a guard spokesman, Tomoyuki Suzuki, who added that Mr. Bethune had been formally charged with “vessel invasion.” A Coast Guard investigation was under way, he said, and it was expected that Mr. Bethune would be transferred to police custody on Sunday.

Japanese media reports suggested that Tokyo intends to use Mr. Bethune’s arrest as a warning to Sea Shepherd to end its confrontations on the high seas with Japan’s whaling fleet.

Hirotaka Akamatsu, the Japanese fisheries minister, told reporters that Mr. Bethune’s actions were “outrageously illegal behavior.”

“We want to deal with it strictly,” he said.

Mr. Bethune’s arrest was top news in Japan, where Sea Shepherd’s efforts to obstruct whaling ships receive wide publicity, none of it positive. While few Japanese eat whale, public opinion is generally sympathetic to the government’s claims that whaling is part of Japanese culture.

Japan kills about 1,000 whales a year — primarily minke whales — as part of a government-financed program that Tokyo says is for scientific purposes. Activists call the program a cover for commercial whaling, which was globally banned in 1986.

Japan’s program has run into opposition from not only activists but also from the governments of Australia and New Zealand, two staunchly anti-whaling nations that are near the waters where the annual Japanese hunt takes place. Last month, Australia’s prime minister threatened international legal action against Japan if it did not end its whaling.

Sea Shepherd has tried to disrupt Japan’s Antarctic hunts by blocking its ships, using ropes to clog their propellers and throwing bottles of rancid butter onto their decks to make them slippery.

On Jan. 6, a Sea Shepherd vessel, the Ady Gil, captained by Mr. Bethune, was damaged in a collision at sea with the Shonan Maru 2. Video taken from the deck of the whaler showed its collision with the Ady Gil, a sleek black trimaran. Each ship blamed the other for the incident.

On the night of Feb. 15, Mr. Bethune reportedly used a motorized water scooter to approach the Shonan Maru 2, then climbed onto its deck after cutting through an anti-boarding net that was draped around the hull. He presented the captain of the whaler with a bill for $3 million for damages that the Ady Gil had suffered.

Mr. Bethune was put into custody by the crew, who held him for a month as the whaling ship returned to Japan.

Coast Guard officials said Mr. Bethune would be able to meet with a lawyer and a New Zealand diplomat after his arrest. The head of Sea Shepherd, Paul Watson, told Japan’s Kyodo News agency that Mr. Bethune boarded the ship to draw more attention to the Japanese hunt.

“We are rallying a lot of support in New Zealand and Australia for Pete,” Mr. Watson was reported as saying. “He may be considered a criminal in Japan, but he’s a hero in Australia and New Zealand.”

Martin Fackler reported from Tokyo, and Mark McDonald from Hong Kong.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

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