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Two environmentalists have been charged with theft and trespassing nearly a month after being arrested for exposing a whale-meat smuggling ring involving the government-sponsored whaling programme, report ARTICLE 19, Greenpeace and news reports.

The two Greenpeace campaigners, Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, were charged on 11 July after handing over evidence of whale-meat smuggling to prosecutors in Tokyo. They were detained for 26 days - 21 days without charge - and eventually released on bail on 16 July, pending their trial.

Greenpeace says a 23.5 kg box of the most expensive cuts of whale meat - worth up to US$3,000 - had been illicitly removed by crew of the Nisshin Maru, the whaling factory ship used for "scientific whaling", following this year's Southern Ocean whale hunt. Its contents were marked "cardboard" and it was destined for a private address.

Tracked by Greenpeace, Sato and Suzuki intercepted the box and turned it over to the Public Prosecutor in Tokyo on 15 May, along with a dossier of how they obtained it, as evidence of embezzlement in the government-funded whaling programme.

Greenpeace's four-month investigation revealed that crew members were taking the best cuts of whale meat during the "scientific hunt", smuggling it ashore and then passing it to traders for illegal sales - and personal profit. One informer told Greenpeace that dozens of crew members take as many as 20 boxes each. The scam appears to have been running for years, with the full knowledge of the officials who conducted the expeditions.

But instead of the whalers, the activists were prosecuted. On 20 June, Sato and Suzuki were arrested on suspicion of trespassing and theft of a box of personal belongings. Forty Japanese police also occupied the Greenpeace Japan offices for more than 10 hours while they seized computers, documents and cell phones.

On the same day, the Public Prosecutor dropped his investigation into Greenpeace's allegations, and Sato and Suzuki were ordered to spend the maximum time in custody without charge allowed under Japanese law - 23 days.

"The disproportionate actions of the authorities are clearly intended to stifle criticism of Japan's controversial whaling programme," says ARTICLE 19. "These arrests can only discourage others from investigating and reporting on suspected irregularities in the use of public funds."

According to Greenpeace, the Japanese whaling programme costs the Japanese taxpayer 500 million yen per year (US$4.7 million).

Greenpeace led a series of actions at Japanese embassies around the world protesting the detention of Sato and Suzuki. ARTICLE 19 has joined other international rights groups in signing a statement of concern about the situation. Almost a quarter of a million people wrote to the Japanese authorities, demanding the activists' release and a renewed investigation into the whale meat embezzlement scandal. Take action yourself here:

Also visit these links:
- Greenpeace:
(Photo: Greenpeace activist Junichi Sato, with the whale meat that was turned over to prosecutors as evidence of whale-meat smuggling. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace)

(16 July 2008)

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