The Aomori District Court sentenced two Greenpeace Japan activists Monday to suspended one-year prison terms for trespassing and stealing whale meat from a transport company branch in Aomori Prefecture in April 2008.

“Even if the defendants’ act is a valid one for the purpose of public benefit, the criminal act in question is beyond the level acceptable as a research activity,” the court ruled.

“It is obvious the defendants had the intention of illegally obtaining the whale meat because they handled the meat in a way only the owners of the meat can do, including opening the box they took, confirming the content was whale meat and taking it as a sample,” the court said.

Junichi Sato, 33, and Toru Suzuki, 43, who claimed the whale meat was evidence that whaling fleet crew members were embezzling part of what they caught, said they will appeal the ruling. Prosecutors had demanded 18-month terms for both of them.

The trial grabbed international attention. Activists and intellectuals criticized prosecutors for undermining the right of the public to reveal information unfavorable to the government, which has been defending its annual research whaling in the Antarctic Ocean despite strong opposition from Australia, the U.S. and other antiwhaling countries.

“The ruling lacks fairness to the actions Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki took to reveal wrongdoing involving government-backed activities using taxpayer money. It cannot be said that the ruling respects the public’s right to know and freedom of expression (as) protected by the International Covenants on Human Rights,” Greenpeace Japan said in a statement faxed to the media.

“The ruling has the effect of scaring off people who want to correct public injustice,” Sato told reporters in Aomori.

Sato and Suzuki were convicted of breaking into an Aomori branch of Seino Transportation Co. on April 16, 2008, and stealing a 23.1-kg cardboard box of whale meat worth about ¥58,905.

The two began probing the alleged embezzlement of whale meat in January 2008 after they were tipped off by a former crew member of the whaler Nisshin Maru. The ship belongs to Kyodo Senpaku, which runs the business of hunting whales and selling the meat.

They saw at least 90 cardboard boxes taken from the Nisshin Maru and loaded onto Seino trucks at a Tokyo port on April 15, 2008, followed one of the trucks to Aomori, took one of the boxes, whose sender was a Kyodo Senpaku crew member, and opened it in a hotel room, the activist group said.

Greenpeace Japan held a news conference May 15, 2008, to show the whale meat to the media as evidence of embezzlement and gave it to Tokyo prosecutors to ask them to investigate five days later.

Crew members are allowed to take home about 10 kg of whale meat as a souvenir and the sender of the box Sato and Suzuki stole had taken some meat from colleagues who did not want any, according to Kyodo Senpaku director Makoto Ito.

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