Case against me is all lies, says whaling activist on trial in Japan

Arrested at sea, taken to Tokyo in handcuffs and now facing a possible 15-year jail sentence for trying to stop Japan's annual whale cull, Peter Bethune has become a controversial hero of the environmental movement. But in Japan, where he is on trial for boarding a whaling ship and assaulting a crew member, he is despised and harangued by nationalists, who call him an eco-terrorist.

Mr Bethune is accused of throwing an acid similar to rancid butter, and injuring a member of the crew of the Shonan Maru No 2 that collided with his powerboat a month earlier during clashes in the Antarctic Ocean. The New Zealander's trial is the first in Japan against a member of the Sea Shepherd Conservationist Society, a direct action group founded more than 30 years ago in the US, and has attracted huge media attention.

Japanese ultra-nationalists have picketed his daily court appearances and staged noisy protests outside the New Zealand and Australian embassies in Tokyo. Some called for Mr Bethune to be "hanged" and for Japan to go to war with Australia over its whaling stance. Australia announced this week that it is upping the ante in the anti-whaling battle by following through on a long-standing threat to take Japan to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Australia and New Zealand accuse Japan of commercial whaling in what both countries consider a whale sanctuary. Tokyo calls the annual cull "scientific whaling" and says neither country has any legal claim over the southern oceans. Against this backdrop, Mr Bethune, from New Zealand, told The Independent that much of the evidence against him is an "orchestrated litany of lies" and described his trial as "judicial rape".

"There has been this procession of rehearsed statements from their side," said Mr Bethune, flanked by a prison guard during an interview in the bunker-like Tokyo Detention centre. "You're not allowed call anyone a liar in the courtroom here but they're lying."

The militant activist has admitted charges including trespassing and disruption of commerce but denies assaulting a crew member of the Shonan Maru No 2 with a bottle of butyric acid.

Last week the whaler testified that he needed a week of medical treatment after the substance splashed him on the face. Bethune accepts he threw it, but said it could not have harmed the whalers. The prosecution showed a damaging video shot by the whalers that appeared to show him whooping with delight after throwing the acid, which is said to be a type of stink bomb.

"The whalers had visors covering their faces, so how could our acid thrown from 18m away have travelled up under the visors? They injured themselves with their own pepper spray," he said. "They're hunting whales in my backyard. They've got no right to be there and like a lot of people I find it deeply offensive."

Prosecutors accuse Mr Bethune of conspiring with other Sea Shepherd members, including leader Paul Watson, of Canada, to "sabotage Japanese whaling in the Antarctic".

Mr Watson, who is not before the court, said that Mr Bethune "is being used as a political football by right-wing nationalists in Japan".

Mr Bethune is expected to be found guilty of the assault charge despite weeping in court last week and saying he had no intention of hurting whalers. Japanese courts boast a conviction rate of more than 99 per cent and if found guilty he faces a maximum of 15 years in prison.

Most observers say a custodial sentence is likely, despite the publicity it would hand to Sea Shepherd. "I think I'll get a maximum of two to three years," predicts Bethune. I'll be disappointed but I'll accept it. I'm just standing up for what I believe in.

"For me, being charged with disruption of commerce is a badge of honour. We slowed them down and cost them a lot of money. But I totally deny the assault charge. I regret the acid and the fact that it got me into trouble."

Mr Bethune was captaining the powerboat Ady Gil in January when it was sliced in half by the Shonan Maru No 2 in what Sea Shepherd calls a deliberate attack. He climbed aboard the Japanese vessel the following month, intending, he says, to arrest its captain for attempted murder and bill him for the sinking of his ship, but was himself arrested and taken back to Tokyo for trial.

Government prosecutors say he was showboating for cameras that were making a documentary.

"My aim was to make life awkward for them," insists Mr Bethune. "We've succeeded. This has caused enormous damage and extreme embarrassment to Japan."

The anti-whaling struggle

Anti-whaling organisations have campaigned against the Japanese fleet for more than 20 years, leading to reduced catches and sparking an angry backlash by the Japanese authorities.

Although large-scale whaling came to an end with the 1986 ban on commercial whaling, Japan has remained one of the three countries that has carried on killing, along with Iceland and Norway.

By labelling its hunting "scientific research", Japan has often killed more than 1,000 whales a year. In 2008, Japan's fishing fleet came back with only just above half of its target number, in part because animal rights activists, including Sea Shepherd and Greenpeace, targeted the whaling voyage.

Japan and its pro-whaling allies are preparing what has been called a compromise deal for this month's annual International Whaling Conference in Morocco, which could finally allow a return of limited commercial whaling, in return for reduced catches and more monitoring, the first since the 1986 moratorium. Opponents say there is no guarantee that quotas would be respected.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

SThree: Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Uncapped Commission: SThree: Do you want to get in...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before