Greenpeace activists given suspended jail term

TOKYO (AFP) – A Japanese court Monday sentenced two Greenpeace activists to suspended one-year jail terms for stealing a box of whale meat that the environmentalists said was proof of embezzlement in "research whaling".

Junichi Sato, 33, and Toru Suzuki, 43, were found guilty of theft and trespass by the Aomori district court and were each sentenced to a one-year jail term, which was suspended for three years, Greenpeace said.

Anti-whaling activists Toru Suzuki (R) and Junichi Sato are pictured in the Greenpeace Japan office in Tokyo, August 25, 2010.

"Despite the sentences being suspended, it was wholly disproportionate given that the two acted in the public interest and not for personal gain," said Greenpeace spokesman Greg McNevin from the northern port city.

"It will have a chilling effect on activists exposing wrongdoing in Japan," he said, adding that Greenpeace believes the sentence also contravenes international human rights laws guaranteeing freedom of speech.

The two activists admit they stole a box of salted whale meat, but pleaded not guilty because they say they acted in the public interest to highlight alleged embezzlement in Japan's "research whaling" programme.

Commercial whaling was banned worldwide in 1986, but Japan set up the non-profit Institute of Cetacean Research the following year and has since culled hundreds of the ocean mammals annually in the name of science.

The two activists say they were contacted over two years ago by a whistle-blower, a veteran crew member of a state-sponsored whaling ship, who told them he was dismayed by what he saw as corruption and waste.

His fellow crewmen were receiving boxes of whale meat, often mislabelled as personal belongings, at their homes after they returned from their annual Antarctic hunts, the unidentified whaler said, according to Greenpeace.

Sato and Suzuki followed the trail to the depot of a courier company in Aomori, where Suzuki on April 16, 2008 took a 23-kilogram (50-pound) box labelled "cardboard and vinyl", which was filled with whale meat.

They later handed the box to Tokyo District Prosecutors and called a press conference to publicise what they saw as evidence of graft. Officials explained the crew members were receiving boxes of whale meat as "souvenirs".

On June 20, police arrested Sato and Suzuki, and in a dramatic operation also raided Greenpeace's Tokyo office and the homes of five staff members, seizing computer hard drives and boxes of documents.

While the embezzlement case was dropped on the day of the arrests, the two activists were taken to Aomori and held for 26 days, interrogated three times a day strapped to chairs without their lawyers present, Greenpeace says.

In court, prosecutors argued the activists had broken the law and may do so again, were self-righteous and had shown no remorse, also citing financial losses to a courier company employee and damage to the firm's reputation.

Greenpeace has condemned what it calls a "political trial" and the treatment of its members, whom it has dubbed the "Tokyo Two". Greenpeace members have rallied at several Japanese embassies worldwide to show their solidarity.

Greenpeace executive director Kumi Naidoo, a former anti-apartheid activist from South Africa, last week said the treatment of Sato and Suzuki "reminds me of the way that the apartheid system treated those that tried to oppose it."

"Greenpeace will continue pursuing the wrongdoing of research whaling," Greenpeace Japan said in a statement issued Monday after the verdict.

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