Amnesty International has called on the Japanese government to preserve the right to legitimate protest in the wake of the conviction of two Greenpeace activists for the theft of a box of whale meat.
Junichi Sato, 33, and Toru Suzuki, 43, were convicted on Monday of theft and trespass by a court in the northern city of Aomori and were each sentenced to one-year jail terms, suspended for three years.
The pair admitted the theft of the 23kg (50lb) box of whale meat, officially deemed to be for research purposes, but say they took the box to help illustrate the much wider problem of similar thefts by whaling ship crews who then sell the meat on for substantial profits.
“This is a disturbing verdict clearly designed to send a signal to anyone who challenges the state position on whaling,” said Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Asia and the Pacific, Catherine Baber. “These two individuals followed up on reports of corrupt practices when officials wouldn’t. They should have received commendations, not convictions.”
Sato and Suzuki say they were first contacted in early 2008 by a veteran whaler turned whistleblower – known only as “Mr Whale” – who was concerned about corruption and waste in the Japanese whaling industry.
He told the pair that crew members regularly received mislabelled boxes sent to their homes that were actually filled with whale meat. Crew members then sold the meat on for personal profit. Some crew members regularly received as many as 10 boxes at a time, he said.
The activists readily admit taking the box of whale meat from a delivery depot in the northern city of Aomori in 2008, which had been labelled “cardboard and vinyl”.
They later turned the box over to Tokyo prosecutors and held a press conference to present their evidence. Instead of prosecutors taking action against the crew members involved, police instead arrested Sato and Suzuki and raided Greenpeace offices and staff homes, seizing documents and computer hard drives.
Greenpeace says the two activists were held for more than three weeks without charge, and were interrogated three times a day while strapped to chairs without their lawyers present. Greenpeace has condemned the action and labelled the prosecution a “political trial”.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that the pair had been engaged in a legitimate public interest enquiry, their prosecution was politically motivated and their initial detention breached their human rights.
“The deplorable treatment Mr Sato and Mr Suzuki received once they presented their evidence is indefensible,” said Catherine Baber. “The Japanese government must act to ensure this type of mistreatment is not repeated, and that the ability to investigate corruption and expose environmental and human rights abuses is upheld.”
Amnesty International has consistently called for an independent, thorough and impartial investigation into the treatment of the pair, urging the Japanese prime minister in 2008 to make a clear statement assuring human rights defenders, including environmental activists such as Sato and Suzuki, that their right to engage in peaceful activities without intimidation or harassment would be respected by the state, including the justice system.
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