- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 7, 2010

TOKYO (AP) - A Tokyo court on Wednesday convicted a New Zealand activist of assault and obstructing the Japanese whaling mission in the Antarctic Ocean, sentencing him to a suspended prison term.

Peter Bethune was also found guilty of three other charges: trespassing, vandalism and possession of a knife. He had pleaded guilty to all but the assault charge when his trial started in late May.

The court sentenced Bethune to two years in prison, with the sentence suspended for five years _ meaning he won’t be jailed.

The assault conviction was for throwing bottles of rancid butter at the whalers aboard their ship, including one that broke and gave three Japanese crew members chemical burns.

Bethune, 45, climbed onto the Shonan Maru 2 in February from a Jet Ski to confront its captain over the sinking of a protest vessel the previous month. The former activist for Sea Shepherd, a U.S.-based conservation group, was held on board the ship and arrested when the vessel returned to Japan in March.

The group has been protesting Japan’s research whaling for years, often engaging in scuffles with Japanese whalers. Sea Shepherd claims the whaling mission, an allowed exception to an international ban, is a cover for commercial hunting.

Judge Takashi Tawada said that Sea Shepherd has been engaged in “acts of sabotage” against the research whaling mission, and that the use of such violence should not be tolerated.

Bethune “assaulted two crew members and interfered with their mission and the impact was extremely serious,” Tawada said. “His actions are based on his selfish beliefs.”

However, Tawada said there was room for leniency in the sentence given that Bethune had acknowledged what had happened, indicated that he wouldn’t return to similar protest activities and had no criminal record in Japan.

In his tearful closing statement June 10, Bethune apologized for the trouble and said he never intended to hurt anyone.

During earlier trial sessions, Bethune said he just wanted to confront the ship’s captain and hand him a $3 million bill for the destruction of the Ady Gil, a Sea Shepherd vessel that sank during a collision in January.

Outside the court, about 30 right-wing protesters chanted and held up placards, including one that said, “Give Sea Shepherd terrorist capital punishment.”

Shuhei Nishimura, one of the protesters, called the sentence “too lenient.”

Sea Shepherd recently said it expelled Bethune because he violated its policies against carrying weapons. The group said he had a bow and arrows with him while he was aboard the Ady Gil, although he never used them.

Japan, Norway and Iceland hunt whales under exceptions to a 1986 moratorium by the International Whaling Commission. Japan’s whaling program also involves large-scale expeditions to the Antarctic Ocean, while other whaling countries mostly stay along their own coasts.

Separately, Japan has said the leader of Sea Shepherd, Canadian citizen Paul Watson, 59, is now on an Interpol wanted list for allegedly ordering Bethune’s actions as part of the group’s disruption of Japanese whaling in the Antarctic.

Watson was placed on the Interpol list in late June at the request of Japan, which accuses his group of risking whalers’ lives during their expedition.

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