A Sea Shepherd activist pleaded guilty Thursday at the start of his Tokyo trial to trespassing onto a Japanese research whaling vessel in the Antarctic Ocean in February but denied trying to hurt a crew member.
New Zealander Peter Bethune, 45, told the Tokyo District Court that he did not intend to harm the 24-year-old crew member aboard the Shonan Maru No. 2 when he fired a bottle containing butyric acid, or rancid butter, at the Japanese vessel.
“I did not mean to injure anyone,” Bethune, a member of the U.S.-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, said when asked to enter his plea as the trial opened.
Speaking through an interpreter, Bethune, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and no tie, admitted firing a bottle of butyric acid to obstruct the Shonan Maru No. 2, which was trying to protect the whaling fleet, but said he wanted to discuss details of the incident in court.
On the trespassing charge, Bethune said: “I admit that I boarded the Daini Shonan Maru, but I believe I had good reasons to do so.”
Prosecutors have charged Bethune with five counts — trespassing on the Shonan Maru No. 2, disrupting its business, inflicting injuries on a crew member, possessing a knife and destroying property.
In their opening statement, prosecutors said Bethune used a launcher to fire a bottle of butyric acid at the Shonan Maru No. 2 as it escorted the whaling fleet on Feb. 11. The bottle hit the ship, inflicting acid burns on the face of a sailor that took a week to heal. They also showed video footage of this act.
On Feb. 15, Bethune illegally boarded the Shonan Maru No. 2 by using a knife to cut a hole in its protective net, they said.
Bethune’s attorneys said in their opening statement that the activist boarded the ship to seek compensation from the Japanese skipper for the loss in January of the Ady Gil, a smaller high-tech Sea Shepherd vessel that he skippered that sank after the Shonan Maru sheared off its bow.
His attorneys also said Bethune was targeting the Japanese ship — not the sailors — with the butyric acid on Feb. 11. The goal was to get the acid, which generates a strong and unpleasant smell, on the ship to force the sailors to clean it up. This would distract them enough to keep the Shonan Maru No. 2 from interfering with Sea Shepherd’s main vessel, the Steve Irwin, they said.
The defense also said that although Bethune’s knife was not in plain view when he boarded the Shonan Maru, he voluntarily told the Japan Coast Guard that he had a knife in his possession but hid it on the boat.
In their opening statements, prosecutors also said the Japanese whaling fleet was working on scientific research related to whales in the Antarctic Ocean with permission from the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry.
But the defense said Bethune got involved in Sea Shepherd’s antiwhaling campaign against the Japanese fleet in July 2009 because he believes Japan’s “research whaling” violates the moratorium on commercial whaling that was enacted by the International Whaling Commission.
Bethune has been in custody since boarding the Shonan Maru No. 2 on Feb. 15 and was arrested by the Japan Coast Guard upon its arrival in Tokyo on March 12. He faces a trial session Friday and Monday and a verdict next month.