- Associated Press - Monday, September 6, 2010

TOKYO (AP) - A Japanese court on Monday convicted two members of the environmental group Greenpeace of stealing whale meat they claim was intended for illegal consumption.

The Aomori District Court gave suspended sentences to the activists after finding them guilty of stealing 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of whale meat from a delivery service company’s warehouse in April 2008. The meat came from whales killed during Japan’s government-backed research hunts.

Japan hunts whales along its coastal waters and in the Antarctic under the research exemption to the 1986 ban on whaling by the International Whaling Commission. Critics say the scientific hunts are a cover for commercial whaling because the meat from the killed whales mostly ends up in restaurants, stores and school lunches.

Junichi Sato, 33, and Toru Suzuki, 43, were sentenced to one year in prison for theft and trespassing, but they will not serve jail time, Greenpeace and court officials said.

The two pleaded not guilty to the theft charge but acknowledged trespassing, saying they wanted to highlight the murky operations of research whaling and to file a criminal complaint with the authorities.

Sato said he and his fellow activist would appeal Monday’s ruling.

“It’s an unfair ruling that punishes the people trying to reveal the wrongs of projects funded by taxpayers’ money,” Sato said in video posted online.

In May 2008, Greenpeace presented the stolen meat to authorities, alleging that whalers in the hunts _ which are financed with taxpayer money _ siphon off the annual catch to sell or for their private use.

Monday’s ruling was “wholly disproportionate result given they acted in the public interest to save whales,” Greenpeace Japan said in a message on Twitter.

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