Whale meat: For research or food?

TOKYO, Japan — Two Greenpeace Japan activists pleaded not guilty on the first day of a trial on Monday to theft and trespass charges. But this is no simple expression of alleged Japanese crime and punishment.

The high-profile case relates to a box of whale meat the activists say they took in order to expose widespread corruption in the publicly-financed “scientific” whaling industry.

The two face a maximum of 10 years in jail from a criminal justice system with a 99 percent plus conviction rate, in a case that has drawn the first condemnation of Japan by the U.N. Human Rights Commission’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.

Working on a tip-off from a whistleblower who had crewed on Japanese whaling ships, Greenpeace began investigating in January 2008, among other allegations, claims that workers were secretly taking home and selling prime cuts of whale meat from the “research” program.

In April 2008, Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki — the “Tokyo Two” as Greenpeace has dubbed them — took a box of what they suspected to be whale meat, from a delivery company’s depot. The box, one of scores being sent to crew members’ houses, did indeed contain 23.5 kilogram (over 50 pounds) of whale meat.

Having logged the contents of the box, the activists took it, along with other documentation detailing the whistleblower’s allegations, to public prosecutors, urging them to investigate embezzlement in the industry.

Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s began an investigation, but dropped it June 20, 2008, the same day Suzuki and Sato were arrested on the trespass and theft charges. Around 70 police officers are said to have raided the Greenpeace Japan offices and the homes of four of the organization's staff, plus another 10 sent to arrest the “Tokyo Two.”

At a press conference in Tokyo on Jan. 12, Kumi Naidoo, the new head of Greenpeace, described the subsequent detention of the two activists for 23 days as, “beyond scary, and absolutely wrong."

"All they were trying to do was draw attention to the misuse of public funds," he added.

(Read a recent GlobalPost interview with Greenpeace chief Naidoo).

Naidoo's view has been largely echoed by the U.N. Human Rights Commission, which has issued an opinion on the arrest, detainment and charges, after hearing submissions from both Greenpeace and the Japanese authorities. The statement from the U.N. body condemned the detention of the two activists as arbitrary, and found that it contravened three articles of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights — the first time such a complaint has been upheld against Japan.

In a clear appeal to the new Democratic Party of Japan government, Naidoo, and deputy director Sarah Burton, repeatedly emphasized that the charges had been brought under the previous government, and that ending corruption and wasteful public spending were key election pledges of the new administration.

However, at a meeting after the press conference with vice foreign minister Chinami Nishimura, the minister told Naidoo that the government couldn’t interfere, and that the case was under trial, or sub judice.

“But our visit to Japan has two purposes: to ensure justice for our two colleagues, but also important for us is try to re-open the original case on embezzlement and corruption [the crews taking whale meat for themselves] — which is not sub judice,” Naidoo told GlobalPost after meeting the minister.

Despite the fact that the two activists cooperated with authorities, notified prosecutors of their actions, and claim to have been acting in the public interest, the decision to bring charges doesn’t bode well. Criminal trials in Japan almost invariably end in guilty verdicts, and there are judges who are infamous for never having found anyone innocent throughout their entire careers.

The statistical improbability of an innocent verdict is not lost on Naidoo, the first African to lead Greenpeace, and himself imprisoned by South Africa’s apartheid regime.

“If in any country, you have a 99 percent plus conviction rate, then you’ve got, not simply the best police force in the world, but a police force that’s got a direct line to God, to be able to get it right all the time,” said Naidoo.

He continued, “Let’s put it this way: We sincerely hope they’ll be the exception to the conventional norm here, because how many of the 99 percent have the U.N. Human Rights Commission come out in their favor?”

The trial proceedings are due to resume in March.