The Tokyo District Court [official website] on Wednesday began [Sea Shepherd press release] the trial of New Zealand anti-whaling activist Peter Bethune on five criminal charges in connection with boarding a Japanese whaling vessel as part of a protest in the Antarctic. The Japanese court system does not accept pleas before trial, but Bethune has made admission of guilt for four of the charges including trespass, destruction of property, illegal possession of a weapon and obstruction of business. He has denied the assault charge filed against him which stems from allegations that Bethune threw cartons of rancid butter at the vessel and injured a Japanese crewman in the process. If convicted, Bethune could face a prison term ranging from 15-25 years [TVNZ report], but his lawyer has indicated that the prosecutor may seek a sentence of two-and-a-half to three years. A verdict is expected [Daily Yomiuri report] as early as next month.
Bethune's charges [JURIST report] stem from boarding the Shanon Maru II, a Japanese whaling vessel, in response to a January 6 collision with the anti-whaling vessel, the Ady Gil, which he captained. As a result of the collision, the bow of the Ady Gil was sheared off, and the crew was rescued by another ship. On February 15, Bethune allegedly approached the Shanon Maru II ship on a jet ski, cut through anti-boarding netting surrounding the ship, boarded the ship, and then presented its captain with a bill for $3 million in damage done to his ship. He was taken into custody and returned to Tokyo where he was arrested by the Japanese Coast Guard. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society [advocacy website], of which Bethune is a member, has criticized [press release] the indictment, saying the "charges are bogus" and that the group "questions the credibility of the entire Japanese judicial system for entertaining such absurdities." The group claims that Bethune is being held for "purely political reasons" in order set an example for anti-whaling activists.