Standing with the Tokyo Two

Unjust sentence for anti-whaling activists

Feature story - September 6, 2010
The Tokyo Two exposed widespread corruption in Japan’s whaling programme. In return, they have been handed a one year suspended prison sentence. Activists in South Africa are outside the Japanese Embassy in Pretoria holding banners reading “Activism is not a crime”, joining others around the world in condemning the sentence imposed on Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki.

The Tokyo Two and Kumi Naidoo at the trial verdict

Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, known as the Tokyo Two, exposed widespread corruption in Japan’s whaling programme. In return, they have been handed a one year suspended prison sentence. 

Volunteers standing outside the Japanese Embassy in Pretoria have  joined other Greenpeace activists in condemning as disproportionate and unjust a one year jail term, suspended for three years, imposed on two Japanese activists, who exposed widespread corruption in the Japanese government’s Southern Ocean whaling programme.

Activists holding banners reading "Activism is not a crime" outside the Japanese Embassy in Pretoria have joined the rest of the organization in condemning the sentence imposed on Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki.  

"Our two colleagues have exhibited courage and dignity," said Michelle Ndiaye Ntab, Executive Director, Greenpeace Africa. "They stand on the shoulders of great leaders who fought for justice, who battled for an end to apartheid and who had to face repression from Mandela and thousand others on Robben Island, to the 20000 women, the youth that shed blood in Soweto in 1976 and more South Africans. We will draw inspiration from our colleagues to further advance environmental justice in this country."

Despite the harsh punishment the two anti-whaling activists stood in court as heroes today, having successfully put whaling on trial, both in court, and in Japan's national media.

Responding to the verdict, Junichi said, "While the court acknowledged that there were questionable practices in the whaling industry, it did not recognise the right to expose these, as is guaranteed under international law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, on which our defence was based, supersedes domestic criminal law, but the judgment did not properly take this into account." 

"This sentence is totally disproportionate and completely undeserved," added Toru. "We set out to reveal the truth about the government’s whaling programme, but instead have been punished, while those behind the misuse of public money walk free."

Greenpeace is appealing this totally unjust, politically motivated sentence. Junichi and Toru have taken great personal risks to investigate and expose embezzlement at the heart of Japan’s tax-funded whaling industry. They intercepted one of numerous boxes of whale meat embezzled from the whaling programme as evidence. These boxes were taken for private use by the crew of the Nisshin Maru in violation of the whaling programme’s regulations, and this amounts to a misuse of public funds.

However, instead of investigating and arresting those behind the whale meat embezzlement scandal, Junichi and Toru were detained arbitrarily, forced to live under onerous bail conditions and put on trial. After more than two-years of political prosecution the court has convicted them of "theft" and "trespass", while the criminals behind the whale meat embezzlement walk free.

You can read key facts heard in the trial here.

This conviction is a slap in the face for those that expose inconvenient truths and the misuse of public funds. It's bad news for the entire political culture in Japan, not least the role of NGOs in society; there is little doubt that the ruling signifies a major step backwards for the country’s aim of gaining international reliability. More broadly this conviction is part of a disturbing trend of authorities meeting peaceful and civil dissent with harsh and disproportionately severe punishments. Sentences such as the one that has been given to Junichi and Toru today create a chilling effect in society. They narrow the democratic space and discourage people from speaking out, with impacts for all of us.

Greenpeace activists are always prepared to take responsibility for their actions, and standing up in court for what we believe in is often a result of taking appropriate, peaceful action. However, it is unacceptable for the authorities to ignore human rights and freedom of expression.

Japan has already drawn criticism from the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention for its treatment of Junichi and Toru, and as Professor Dirk Voorhoof, an international law expert and defence witness in the case, said: "This conviction is very likely to earn Japan more criticism for its failure to respect its obligations under international human rights law."

Junichi and Toru are not alone in facing this verdict. Vigils are being held at Japanese embassies around the world and hundreds of thousands of people have already signed our petition calling for justice. In addition the Toyo Two’s case has already been taken up by Amnesty International, by Nobel Laureates including Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and by celebrities like Bryan Adams and Benicio Del Torro.

Over the course of the Tokyo Two trial a lot has also happened to shift public perceptions in Japan. Industry whistleblowers have continued to speak with Japanese media about corruption and wrongdoing in the whaling industry, interest in the story keeps growing, and in the last fortnight alone articles in major newspapers such as Tokyo Shimbun and Kyodo have closely examined the issue. The headlines include “the trial of whale meat theft exposes horrifying realities” and “Scientific Whaling is diverting to illegal channels after all”. Japanese journalists are also not just increasingly interested in what’s going on in the tax-funded whaling programme, but in what the Tokyo Two trial has to say on the question of freedom of expression and NGO rights in their country.

"Activists are not criminals, and to treat them as such has a chilling effect in society, undermining the quality of democracy," said Greenpeace International Executive Director Dr. Kumi Naidoo, who travelled to Japan to hear the verdict. "The freedom to peacefully expose wrongdoing is not only a crucial part of any democracy, it is a right that must be defended. Greenpeace will continue to make this case a global priority until this unjust conviction is overturned."

We’re standing with Junichi and Toru all the way and will make sure as many people as possible hear their story – and the positive impact their brave action is having.