TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan’s coastguard on Friday arrested an anti-whaling activist from New Zealand who boarded a whaling vessel in the Antarctic following clashes between hunters and environmentalists, a spokesman said.
Media helicopters hovered overhead as a flotilla of ships sailed into Tokyo Bay and Pete Bethune of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was brought ashore after being held on board for the four-week trip.
Sea Shepherd said 44-year-old Bethune had been planning to attempt a citizen’s arrest of the Japanese whaling vessel’s skipper when he boarded the ship in February, and that it has arranged legal representation in Japan for him.
The hardline anti-whaling group’s regular attempts to block the annual whale hunt have sparked irritation in Japan, where the government says whaling is an important cultural tradition.
“Of course, different people and countries may have different feelings towards whaling, but Sea Shepherd’s vicious actions are dangerous and cannot be accepted,” Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told reporters.
“It’s a matter of course that he has been arrested. He should be probed and tried in Japan based on the truth, but I think this will not hurt ties with Australia or New Zealand,” he said.
Bethune, the captain of the Ady Gil, a high-tech vessel that was damaged in a collision with a Japanese whaling ship in January, approached Japan’s Shonan Maru 2 on a jet ski, breached anti-boarding nets and climbed aboard in darkness on February 15.
Bethune was arrested on the ship on arrival in Tokyo, the coastguard spokesman said. Crowds of media and a handful of pro-whaling demonstrators were awaiting his arrival on the pier, which was blocked from view by blue tarpaulins.
“We want the Japanese government to punish the activist as severely as possible under Japanese law and ask the New Zealand government to remove the Ady Gil’s ship registration,” said protester Shuhei Nishimura.
A coastguard official later told reporters Bethune appeared to be in good health and was answering questions readily.
Kyodo News Agency quoted Sea Shepherd head Paul Watson as saying it was “very strange ... the aggrieved captain is the one who is going to be arrested.”
“We are rallying a lot of support in New Zealand and Australia for Pete, he may be considered a criminal in Japan but he’s a hero in Australia and New Zealand,” Watson said.
Bethune could face imprisonment for up to 3 years or a fine of up to 100,000 yen (731 pounds), according to Japanese media.
Last month Australia set Japan a November deadline to stop Southern Ocean whaling or face an international legal challenge.
Some legal experts say Japan’s hunt breaches international laws such as the Antarctic Treaty System. A court challenge would lead to provisional orders for Japan to halt whaling immediately ahead of a full hearing.
Commercial whaling was banned under a 1986 moratorium, but Japan still hunts whales for what it says are research purposes. The meat mostly ends up on dinner tables.
Additional reporting by Chika Osaka, Yoko Nishikawa and Yoko Kubota; Editing by Paul Tait