The Australian government was working yesterday to secure the release of three anti-whaling activists held on board a Japanese ship, but said they could face charges in Tokyo.
The men from the Forest Rescue Australia environmental group boarded the Shonan Maru No. 2 about 26km off Australia’s west coast on Saturday night.
Forest Rescue said it wanted to prevent the Shonan Maru from tailing the Steve Irwin, a ship from anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd, back to the Southern Ocean, where Japan annually hunts for whales.
The group is demanding the activists be returned to Australia, but Australian Attorney General Nicola Roxon said they may instead face Japanese law.
“We hope that it won’t come to that, but you do have to look at the past to know that it is likely these three Australians may be taken back to Japan,” she told reporters.
It is not the first time an activist has boarded the Shonan Maru No. 2 — New Zealander Pete Bethune was arrested and taken back to Japan to be tried after sneaking onto the ship during the heated 2009-2010 anti-whaling campaign.
He was handed a two-year suspended sentence and spent five months in prison.
Roxon said the government had asked, through diplomatic channels, to speak directly to the three men, but “that hasn’t yet happened.”
“We are in diplomatic discussions, we hope there will be an opportunity to ensure their safety and wellbeing soon,” Roxon said, but warned that it was tricky because the incident did not happen in Australia’s territorial waters.
“Because it was only in our exclusive economic zone, that doesn’t give us automatic rights to assert Australian law,” she said. “In fact, the clearest advice that we have is that Japanese law would be likely to apply.”
International law expert Donald Rothwell agreed this was the most likely outcome.
“Unauthorized boarding of a Japanese vessel is an act of trespass wherever that act may have taken place at sea,” said Rothwell, a professor at the Australian National University’s College of Law. “If the Japanese authorities decide to investigate and bring charges on these grounds, the Australians will find themselves being sent to Japan to face court.”
Sea Shepherd claims the men are “being held as prisoners” on board the Shonan Maru, which has been tracking the Steve Irwin.
The Steve Irwin returned to Australia last week because another Sea Shepherd ship, the Brigitte Bardot, was damaged in high seas and needed escorting home, setting back the group’s annual harassment of the whalers.
Japanese whaling spokesman Glen Inwood, from the Institute of Cetacean Research, said the men were being treated well, but warned they could be on the ship for months, with the whale hunt only just beginning.
“Not only are they facing that, but they risk being taken to Japan to be tried for trespassing, or for other charges,” he told ABC radio.
“The Australians are being very compliant. They haven’t offered any resistance,” he added.
Three whaling ships, led by the 720 tonne Yushin Maru, left the Japanese port of Shimonoseki on Dec. 6 for the annual hunt, with security measures beefed up amid simmering international protests.
In previous years, a mother ship has joined them later.
Commercial whaling is banned under an international treaty, but Japan has since 1987 used a loophole to carry out “lethal research.”