A New Zealand anti-whaling activist was arrested in Japan Friday after a harpoon ship he boarded in Antarctic waters last month docked in Tokyo, greeted by police and nationalist protesters.
Peter Bethune, of the militant Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), was engaged in months of high-seas clashes with the Japanese whaling fleet but has been in custody since mid-February when he boarded the Shonan Maru II.
About 20 angry nationalist protesters with Rising Sun flags, watched over by riot police, lined the pier and shouted through megaphones: "Step forward Pete Bethune! Apologise to the Japanese people! We will tear you apart!"
The harpoon ship docked alongside a vessel of the Japan Coast Guard, whose officers served him with an arrest warrant for trespass on a ship, a charge that can carry up to three years' jail.
|In this 2006 picture captain Pete Bethune is pictured standing next to the alternative-fueled high-speed powerboat Earthrace, later to be renamed the Ady Gil, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida|
It is the latest chapter in a long-running battle between environmentalists and Japanese whalers, who hunt the ocean giants in the name of scientific research, a loophole to a moratorium on whaling.
Japan maintains that whaling has been part of the island-nation's culture for centuries, and it does not hide the fact that whale meat from its expeditions ends up in shops and restaurants.
As TV helicopters buzzed overhead, the protesters -- watched by riot police and plain-clothed officers with video cameras -- also expressed their fury with Australia, which has threatened to take Japan to an international court unless it commits to ending its annual whale hunts.
Japan's Fisheries Minister Hirotaka Akamatsu told a press conference that the nation would maintain a "resolute stance" but said he did not see a diplomatic row brewing.
Bethune, 44, was the captain of the Sea Shepherds' high-tech powerboat that was sliced in two in a collision with the Shonan Maru II in January.
He climbed aboard the Japanese ship before dawn on February 15 from a jet ski with the stated intention of making a citizen's arrest of captain Hiroyuki Komiya for what he said was the attempted murder of his six crew.
Bethune also presented the Japanese whalers with a three-million-dollar bill for the futuristic carbon-and-kevlar trimaran Ady Gil, which sank in the icy waters a day after the collision on January 6.
Instead, the Japanese whalers took Bethune into custody and sailed for Japan. They reported he was in good health and being treated well, unrestrained but under watch in a private cabin with three meals a day.
The SSCS, which has called Bethune the first New Zealander taken as a "prisoner of war" to Japan since World War II, said on its website it was preparing legal representation for the skipper.
The group declared an end to this season's pursuit of Japanese harpoon ships in Antarctic waters on February 27, saying it had been the most successful campaign so far, saving many whales.
If Bethune faces trial in Japan, it would be the second court case there centred on whaling, besides the ongoing proceedings against two Japanese Greenpeace activists now in the dock in the northern city of Aomori.
The so-called "Tokyo Two" face up to 10 years in prison for theft and trespassing after they took a box of salted whale meat, which they said was proof of embezzlement in Japan's state-funded annual whaling expeditions.