GUILTY! Japan's justice system "breached human rights of Greenpeace anti-whaling activists"

Feature story - February 8, 2010
When two of our activists were detained after exposing major corruption in the Japanese whaling industry - we knew the Japanese authorities breached internationally guaranteed human rights. Now, as these two activists prepare to take the stand and have their day, or more in court, the violation of their human rights has been confirmed by a UN working group.

Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki, known as the "Tokyo Two," are due to stand trial on February 15th - charged for theft and trespass. But over the past two years it has become clear that much more is now under the legal spotlight. Corrupt government practices, censoring public information, Japan's adherence to international law, freedom of speech and the right of individual protest together with the commercial killing of thousands of whales are all under the spotlight. And before the verdict has even been rendered, a working group of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has already ruled that, in the defendants' attempts to expose a scandal in the public interest, their human rights have been breached by the Japanese justice system.

The scandal

In 2008, Junichi and Toru exposed a scandal involving government corruption entrenched within the tax-payer funded whaling industry. Their findings included the embezzlement of whale meat. The Tokyo District Prosecutor began an investigation but then shut it down the same day that Junichi and Toru were arrested.

The two were held for 26 days, 23 of them without charge - often tied to chairs while they were interrogated, without a lawyer present. They face up to ten years in jail for doing what any honorable citizen should do - expose corruption. But it is not just Junichi and Toru's liberty that is at stake here - it is the fundamental right to peacefully investigate and expose corruption, to challenge authority and to do so without fear of persecution.

Since their initial arrest in June 2008, more than a quarter of a million people have signed a petition to demand justice for the Tokyo Two, and legal experts including Supreme Court advocates worldwide have expressed concern about the prosecution. International human rights and advocacy groups such as Amnesty International have questioned the legitimacy of the prosecution.

A hugely significant UN ruling

The UNHRC's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention informed the Japanese government in December that its treatment of Junichi and Toru breached no fewer than five articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The working group also recognised the following facts.

  • "Sato and Suzuki acted considering that their actions were in the greater public interest as they sought to expose criminal embezzlement within the taxpayer-funded whaling industry."
  • "Junichi and Toru willingly cooperated with the police and the Public Prosecutor but that this cooperation was not acknowledged."
  • "The Government did not submit any essential information, such as details of Junichi and Toru's activities as environmental activists, the investigation they carried out, the evidence they gathered or the help they gave to authorities to formally investigate their allegations."

"Junichi and Toru acted in the public interest to expose a scandal that involved corruption in the taxpayer-funded whaling program. Now it is clear that this is not just the opinion of Greenpeace, but also of the competent United Nations body. We expect the Japanese courts to take note of this opinion and judge the case accordingly."

-- Greenpeace International Executive Director Kumi Naidoo.

The Working Group concluded: "The right of these two environmental activists not to be arbitrarily deprived of their liberty; their rights to freedom of opinion and expression and to exercise legitimate activities, as well as their right to engage in peaceful activities without intimidation or harassment has not been respected by the Justice system." As such, the Working Group found that the government has contravened articles 18,19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and articles 18 and 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It also took the view that Sato and Suzuki had been denied the right to challenge their detention before an independent and impartial tribunal in fair proceedings, and requested that the remainder of the trial be conducted fairly.

Junichi Sato (left), Toru Suzuki (right), and their lead counsel, Yuichi Kaido (center) face reporters at a press briefing following their first pre-trial hearing at Aomori District Court in 2009.

Whaling on trial

The decision to engage in this politically motivated prosecution was made by the previous government in Japan. The new administration can remedy the shame of this damning UN opinion by ensuring that the trial will be fair, adhering to international legal standards. Further, it should re-examine the original allegations made by Junichi and Toru.

Prime Minister Hatoyama has already shown leadership. In Copenhagen he stood out with his support for ambitious action on climate change. Now he has the opportunity to be seen as a world leader in human rights, by ensuring that corruption is put on trial - rather than the honorable men who exposed it.

Take Action

Tell the Japanese Embassy that you stand beside the Tokyo Two as co-defendants.

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