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Human rights make whale meat hard to swallow

Richard Black | 15:48 UK time, Thursday, 9 April 2009

When two men go uninvited into a warehouse and remove a box of something that doesn't belong to them, what kind of offence has been committed, and by whom?

Do they stand accused of simple theft? Or does the judicial system that charges and tries them stand accused of breaching fundamental tenets of international human rights law?

This might seem like a rather abstruse topic for an environmental blog; but it's a question that is central to a case that's likely to play out for real in a Japanese courtroom soon, perhaps within the next six months.

Junichi SatoEarly last year, former crew members of the Japanese whaling fleet tipped off Greenpeace that meat from the annual hunt (conducted under scientific whaling regulations) was being embezzled from the company, Kyodo Senpaku, that operates the whaling ships under commission from the government's Institute for Cetacean Research.

In April, activists Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki entered a warehouse in Aomori prefecture and removed a box of the meat. In May, they exhibited its contents to the media in Tokyo before taking it to the district prosecutor's office along with a file detailing the whalers' alleged wrongdoings.

Initially the prosecutor said he would investigate Kyodo Senpaku's workers. But later - shortly before the International Whaling Commission's meeting opened in Chile - the picture changed abruptly.

That prosecution was shelved; instead Mr Sato and Mr Suzuki found themselves under arrest, and, after 23 days in custody, charged with theft.

That is the basic case history; you can read Greenpeace's account in much more detail on their website.

This week I had a chance to meet lawyers working with Greenpeace on their defence, and it is clear they are leaving no international stone unturned in their search for arguments that could either win the case in court or so embarass the Japanese prosecutors' office that political considerations would be likely to force an outcome favourable to the two activists, who face a maximum 10 years in jail if convicted.

We met in the London chambers of human rights lawyer Richard Harvey, and prominent among the guests was Yuichi Kaido, the attorney who has represented what Greenpeace terms "the Tokyo Two" at pre-trial hearings.

The defence, in essence, is that the activists may have taken the meat, but it does not constitute theft because it wasn't taken for personal gain - indeed, they say, the only intent was to expose a practice that (in the organisation's view) is tantamount to theft from the Japanese public purse, and they surrendered the meat willingly.

One of the instruments the lawyers will be wielding is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a UN treaty that has been in force since 1976 and to which Japan is signed up.

FoI documentMr Kaido said that to prosecute the two men would contravene the acknowledged right to freedom of expression; the clause behind his argument says that "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds..."

The covenant recognises that governments can limit this right; but a common interpretation has been that journalists, for example, have the right to look for information in pretty liberal ways providing the end result is thought to justify the means.

Either before or during the trial, lawyers will also be raising the responses Greenpeace received from Japanese authorities to requests, under Freedom of Information legislation, for data on whale meat sales and production statistics.

The documents came back laden with black ink. Richard Harvey was particularly scathing on this issue; when government agencies react like this, he said, you could be fairly sure "they're involved in a serious cover-up".

Now, I am a very long way indeed from being a legal expert and it is not my role to pontificate on the rights and wrongs of the case.

But it does seem clear that when the saga reaches its climax, if the defence has its way, the actions of a lot more people than Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki will be on trial, at least in the court of public opinion.

As Greenpeace's Sarah Holden put it: "We are determined that this case will not just be about two guys and a box".

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