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Activists Are Not Criminals

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Junichi, Toru and Kumi after the verdict
Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert / Greenpeace
After more than two years of political prosecution, my colleagues Junichi Sato and Toru Suzuki were this week handed a one-year jail sentence, suspended for three years. Their crime: exposing corruption in the Japanese whaling program.


Over the course of their trial, Junichi and Toru produced substantial evidence of embezzlement within the decaying relic that is Japan's whaling industry.

When I came to Japan in February for the start of this trial I was shocked that Junichi and Toru were even in court. What I saw in the Aomori court is deeply concerning.

The judges recognized that "murkiness" existed in the industry regarding the handling of whale meat, however, despite this and clear contradictions in the official version of events, the judges instead chose to deny citizens the right to investigate the misuse of public resources.

The judges ruled that the harm done to the reputation of the transportation company from whose depot Junichi and Toru seized the evidence of embezzlement outweighed the public interest served by the investigation, and found that enforcing Japan's laws against theft and trespass in this case does not violate freedom of expression protected by treaties Japan has ratified. This runs in stark contrast with the opinion of a UN working group, which slammed the authorities for their handling of this case.

Junichi and Toru have been completely transparent, honest and consistent at all times during their investigation, arrest, interrogation and trial. In contrast the prosecution case against them has been marred by cover ups of critical documents, inconsistent and plain contradictory witness accounts.

Junichi and Toru are appealing this wholly disproportionate and unjust verdict, and Greenpeace will stand shoulder to shoulder with them as they do. Their case is a timely reminder that those who peacefully protest and otherwise stand up to wrongdoing should not be treated so poorly by the authorities.

For close to 40 years, Greenpeace has campaigned against significant environmental and social problems around the world. Our fragile earth needs a voice, and our activists have helped it be heard since 1971 through nonviolent direct action.

The deteriorating state of the world's climate, acidifying oceans and increasing loss of biodiversity has made activism more important now than ever before. However, as this need for committed activists grows, there is also a disturbing trend of authorities meeting peaceful civil dissent with harsh and disproportionate responses.

We saw this with the Red Carpet Four's arrest and treatment in Denmark during last year's UN Climate Conference, we saw it a few weeks ago when warships were dispatched to prevent a peaceful protest against oil exploration in the Arctic near Greenland, and we have definitely seen it with the Tokyo Two, whose initial detention without charge for 23 days has been declared a breach of their human rights by the United Nations Human Rights Council Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Their prosecution was also considered political in nature by the same working group, and the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights expressed similar concerns.

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Protest in support of Junichi and Toru in Belgium
Philip Reynaers / Greenpeace
Greenpeace activists are keenly aware of any risks they may take with life, limb, and liberty, and all are prepared face the consequences of their actions. Activists are not above the law, but neither are the authorities. When activists challenge the authorities they do so in the public interest and not for personal gain. It is unacceptable for authorities to abuse their power to try to silence them.


Junichi and Toru have already been cleared in the court of international public opinion. This verdict will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on civil society in Japan, as it casts a disturbing shadow over human rights. Junichi and Toru's "crime" has really been to shame the authorities. When political revenge and preserving the status quo takes precedent over improving the quality of democracy, then it is the duty of all to take a stand.

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