Tokyo: An anti-whaling activist from New Zealand who boarded a Japanese whaling ship as part of a protest in February pleaded guilty Thursday to charges including trespassing and destruction of property, but denied that he committed assault.
Sea Shepherd activist Peter Bethune admitted in a Tokyo court that he climbed aboard the Shonan Maru 2 in Antarctic seas and pleaded guilty to two other criminal counts — illegal possession of a knife and obstruction of business — but said he believed he had "good reason to do so." He denied a fifth charge of assault.
If convicted, Bethune could face up to 15 years in prison.
Bethune, 45, who jumped aboard the whaling vessel from a Jet Ski, has said he wanted to make a citizen`s arrest of the Japanese captain and handed over a $3 million bill for the destruction of a high-tech protest ship that sank after a confrontation with Japanese whaling vessels a month earlier.
Prosecutors Thursday accused Bethune of conspiring with other Sea Shepherd members to "sabotage Japanese whaling in the Antarctic."
They say Bethune and other activists threw glass bottles containing rotten butter at the Japanese boat, causing them to explode, splashing a crew member in the face and slightly injuring him and obstructing the whaling mission.
Bethune is also accused of slashing the ship`s protective net with a knife that he illegally carried with him when he sneaked on to Shonan Maru 2.
"I admit that I boarded the Shonan Maru 2 but I believe that I have good reason to do so," he said during the proceedings. "I admit that I fired the butyric acid, but there were additional circumstances that we will discuss in court."
He was handcuffed and had a rope tied around his waist as he was ushered into the courtroom, which guards removed as he sat in front of the panel of judges. He grinned when prosecutors showed a photo on a wall-mounted monitor showing him on a protest boat, identifying him with "a trademark skinhead."
Outside the court, a group of about 30 ultra rightwing activists staged a protest, jeering anti-whaling activists and holding banners accusing them of "waging terrorist attacks on Japan."
Sea Shepherd lawyer Dan Harris urged the court to conduct a fair trial.
"I have every reason to believe that judges are not going to politicize the trial," he told The Associated Press. "Mr. Bethune said he is proud of what he has done and he feels that it was worth it."
Bethune was brought back from the southern seas aboard the Shonan Maru 2 and arrested in March immediately after the harpoon boat was docked in the Tokyo bay, and has since been in custody at Tokyo`s main detention center.
Confrontations between Sea Shepherd boats and Japanese vessels have at times turned violent, forcing Japan`s Antarctic mission in recent years to return home with only half its catch quota of some 900 whales.
Japan joins Norway and Iceland in hunting whales under various exceptions to a 1986 moratorium by the International Whaling Commission. Opponents call Japan`s research whaling program a cover for commercial hunts and have singled it out for especially strong protests. The program also involves large-scale expeditions down to the Antarctic, while other whaling countries mostly stay along their coasts.
Excess meat is sold in Japan for consumption, available through limited outlets such as special whale restaurants and public school lunch programs.
In a bid to resolve a deep divide between pro-whaling nations and their opponents, the IWC last month issued a proposal that would effectively allow the whaling countries to resume commercial hunts, though under strict quotas set by the commission. The IWC will debate the proposal at next month`s meeting in Morocco.
Japan accuses the conservationists of endangering lives of whalers and is also seeking to arrest Sea Shepherd leader Paul Watson over his role in the Bethune case.