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Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010

Japan may charge activist on whaler


Staff writer

The government may press charges under domestic law against a New Zealand activist who secretly boarded a Japanese whaling ship in the Antarctic Ocean, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano said Tuesday.

Activist Pete Bethune of the group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is being held aboard the Shonan Maru No. 2 after he boarded the vessel Monday ostensibly to "arrest" its skipper for sinking his boat, the Ady Gil, in a collision last month.

"There are allegations that (Bethune) may have breached the criminal law by intruding into a vessel of our country," Hirano said at a news conference, noting the government is weighing various options, including turning the activist over to the Japan Coast Guard for questioning in Japan.

The boarding could constitute trespassing, Hirano said, adding government ministries were in the final stages of deciding how to handle the case.

But the government must tread carefully because pressing charges could add further fuel for Sea Shepherd to wage a propaganda war against Japan, government sources said.

Trespassing on a vessel can result in a prison term of up to three years or a fine of up to ¥100,000.

Bethune was being held in the custody of the Shonan Maru No. 2 captain under Japan's Mariners Act.

According to sources, including a statement by Sea Shepherd, Bethune boarded the whaler to make a citizen's arrest of its captain. The New Zealander was the skipper of the antiwhaling vessel Ady Gil, which sank after the Shonan Maru No. 2 cut off its bow on Jan. 6.

Bethune and Sea Shepherd, which are calling the collision the "attempted murder" of Sea Shepherd members, also demanded the Japanese vessel pay $3 million to replace the sunken ship.

Although Sea Shepherd announced that Bethune expected to be taken to Japan as a consequence of his actions, the government appeared unprepared Tuesday to handle the thorny standoff.

Bethune would be the first Sea Shepherd activist to be brought to Japan and questioned. The government returned two seized activists to Australian authorities after a high-seas boarding in 2008.

Farm minister Hirotaka Akamatsu, who administers the Fishery Agency, quickly criticized Bethune, saying the activist should be properly questioned by the coast guard.

But transport minister Seiji Maehara, who oversees the coast guard, noted the case could involve a variety of ministries. Procedures to question or press charges against Bethune had yet to be finalized, he said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirano said Bethune's actions will be brought to light under Japanese law, but he did not elaborate on how the case will proceed.

A decision will be made after the ministries, including possibly the Foreign Ministry, discuss the matter, he said.

"We will have to make adjustments appropriately," Hirano said when asked about the specific process for handling the case.

Sea Shepherd and the government have tussled for years. Information from Kyodo added



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