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The US Supreme Court has denied a plea from anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd to end restrictions on its movement, following Japanese allegations that its activists had violated orders to stay away.
Sea Shepherd, which disrupts Japan's controversial whaling missions in the Southern Ocean, last week asked the Supreme Court to throw out a lower court's injunction to stay at least 500 yards (meters) away from the vessels.
Justice Anthony Kennedy on Wednesday rejected the application, a Supreme Court document showed. As is customary for such denials, Kennedy did not offer commentary.
Sea Shepherd said it planned to reapply to another of the Supreme Court's nine justices. "We are hopeful for a favorable decision," said Charles Moure, a Seattle-based lawyer who is lead US counsel for the group.
Generally, one Supreme Court justice considers all emergency applications from each US region. Kennedy -- considered a decisive swing vote on the bench -- is in charge of the Ninth Circuit, which includes the Pacific Northwest.
Japan's whalers earlier this week filed a motion with the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit accusing Sea Shepherd of violating the injunction when its ship, the Brigitte Bardot, approached whaling vessels on January 29.
Japan's whaling organizations, the government-backed Institute for Cetacean Research and the company Kyodo Senpaku, sought to find Sea Shepherd in contempt of court -- which would carry potentially serious legal penalties.
Sea Shepherd has not denied that the Brigitte Bardot, a former ocean racer named after the French actress and animal rights activist, trailed the whalers. The group has claimed success by preventing the Japanese from killing whales this season.
But the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, based near Seattle, said its vessel was sailing under an Australian flag and operated by its Australian sister organization, meaning it is not subject to the US court order.
Australia and New Zealand voice outrage over Japan's annual whaling expeditions in the Southern Ocean, which the International Whaling Commission considers a sanctuary for the ocean giants.
Japan uses a loophole in a 1986 global moratorium on commercial whaling that allows "lethal research" on whales and sets out to kill hundreds each year.
The country makes no secret that the meat ends up on dinner plates and has pushed for a resumption of full-fledged commercial whaling, accusing Western nations of insensitivity to its cultural traditions.
The Ninth Circuit court issued the injunction on Sea Shepherd on December 17, citing safety concerns on the high seas as it reviews a lawsuit from the whalers.
Sea Shepherd has argued that the US court has no jurisdiction over activities halfway across the world.
Sea Shepherd's founder Paul Watson has been on the run since July when he jumped bail in Germany, where he was arrested on charges from Costa Rica related to a confrontation over shark finning.
His group has started a petition campaign on the White House website asking the United States to ensure safe haven for the 62-year-old activist, who holds both US and Canadian citizenship.