Right-wing Japanese protesters banned from film of dolphin cull

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A Japanese court has issued a rare ban against demonstrators who have hounded screenings of an Oscar-winning documentary exposing the country's infamous annual dolphin cull.

Yokohama regional court ordered members of a right-wing protest group to stay away from a theatre showing The Cove, which depicts the slaughter of 23,000 dolphins every year in the fishing town of Taiji.

Bullhorn-wielding ultra-nationalists have repeatedly descended on theatres that plan to screen the 92-minute movie, denouncing it as anti-Japanese. They say the documentary is a front for the direct-action conservationists, Sea Shepherd, which they denounce as a "terrorist" group. A general Japanese release of The Cove has been stalled for over a year amid fears of protests and even violent retribution against cinemas.

But film distributor Unplugged decided to take on the protesters on condition that the movie's makers block the faces of the local people it depicts. Over 20 theatres have agreed to screen it after a group of directors and publishers stood up to defend it, turning the controversy into a free-speech debate.

The court ban comes after a proposal to solve the bitter whaling dispute disintegrated this week at the conference of the International Whaling Commission in Agadir, Morocco. The vacuum left by that failure will likely lead to more action by conservationists – and retaliation by the Japanese authorities.

Tokyo yesterday placed the Sea Shepherd leader, Paul Watson, on an international wanted list as part of a campaign against eco-warriors who target the whaling industry. Japan's Coast Guard accuses Mr Watson of ordering an attack on its Antarctic whaling fleet earlier this year, when activists allegedly pelted the whaling crew with a mild acid.

Sea Shepherd's boat, the Ady Gil, captained by Peter Bethune, was destroyed in subsequent clashes when it collided with a whaling ship.

Mr Bethune is likely to be found guilty of obstructing the hunt and injuring a whaling crew member when the Tokyo District Court announces its verdict on 7 July.

Greenpeace activists Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki also face lengthy custodial sentences on charges of trespass and theft after they tried to expose the alleged embezzlement of whale meat aboard Japan's main whaling ship, the Nisshin Maru. The two intercepted one of dozens of boxes of whale meat they say were sent illegally by the whaling crew to addresses across Japan. The authorities responded by ignoring the claims and launching a ferocious campaign against Greenpeace.

The court order, requested by the distributor, is a rare piece of good news for anti-whaling campaigners.

An Unplugged spokeswoman told the Japanese press that they demanded the ban after protesters targeted the company.

Last night an ultra-nationalist, Makoto Sakurai, promised no let up in his group's campaign. "It's full of lies and distortion of our culture by Westerners who hate Japan," he said. "We are right and we will continue."

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