A trial for an anti-whaling activist opened at a Tokyo court Thursday over his alleged attacks on a Japanese whaling vessel, as Japan strikes back at conservationists' escalating disruptions on its Antarctic whale hunts.
New Zealander Peter Bethune is an activist with the U.S.-based Sea Shepherd group, which sets out to disrupt Japan's whale hunts each year, accusing it of conducting banned commercial whaling under the guise of scientific research.
He is primarily charged for his illegal boarding of a whaling vessel in Antarctic seas, where he jumped aboard Shonan Maru 2 in February. Bethune 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 protest ship that sank after a confrontation a month earlier.
The 45-year-old Bethune was arrested in March for the alleged trespassing immediately after the harpoon ship returned to Japan, and has since been in custody at Tokyo's main detention center.
Bethune also faces four other criminal counts _ assault, illegal possession of a knife, destruction of property and obstruction of business _ that could lead to prison term up to 15 years if convicted.
Prosecutors said Bethune, while conspiring with unidentified fellow 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.
Bethune has admitted to the allegations, Japanese Coast Guard officials said. His Japanese lawyers refused comment.
Japan, Norway and Iceland continue hunting whales under various exceptions to a 1986 moratorium by the International Whaling Commission. Japan's research whaling has particularly come under harsh attack, as opponents call it a cover for commercial hunts. The program also involve large-scale expedition 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.
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 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.