TOKYO (AFP) — Environmental group Greenpeace said Tuesday it will not chase Japan's controversial whaling expedition in the Antarctic Ocean this year as it fights to clear two activists being prosecuted by Tokyo.
The more militant Sea Shepherd group, however, has pledged once more to harass the whalers, paving the way for more showdowns on the high seas when the Japanese fleet embarks later this month.
Environmentalists and most Western nations strongly oppose Japan's whaling. The country kills hundreds of whales a year in the name of research, with the meat nonetheless ending up on dinner tables.
Greenpeace said its top priority was defending two of its Japanese activists who go on trial early next year and face prison on charges of stealing whale meat during an investigation to unearth alleged corruption.
Junichi Sato, who was one of Greenpeace's most visible spokesmen in Japan, and Toru Suzuki are currently on bail after being arrested in June. They face 10 years in prison if convicted, according to Greenpeace.
"This is a politically motivated prosecution and so anything we do to campaign against whaling could be used against Junichi and Toru," Greenpeace Japan official Takumi Kobayashi said, citing advice from lawyers.
"We do not believe they should go to jail for exposing the truth. We will do everything to prevent that," he told AFP.
The environmental group, which has nine times sent ships to the Antarctic to face off with whalers, denied it was bowing to pressure.
"The decision-maker is not the fishermen but the Japanese government and also the Japanese public, so this time we will be concentrating our activities in Japan," Kobayashi said.
Greenpeace said more than 250,000 people have sent e-mails to the Japanese prime minister demanding that charges be dropped against the two activists.
The group said it would also bring a delegation to Japan in December coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to denounce the prosecution of the activists.
Sato and Suzuki took part in a lengthy investigation in which Greenpeace charged that whalers on the taxpayer-backed hunt had taken meat home and sold it on the black market.
An official at Japan's Fisheries Agency declined to comment on Greenpeace's decision but said the upcoming whaling expedition would proceed as planned.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which accuses Greenpeace of being too conciliatory, has vowed physically to stop the hunt.
Whalers netted little more than half of their intended catch last season as Sea Shepherd activists hurled stink bombs and forcibly boarded a whaling vessel.
Sea Shepherd activist Peter Hammarstedt warned that the group had "a few surprises" for the whalers this year.
"We intend to be more aggressive and even more relentless," the Swede said in a recent statement. "We intend to make sure no whales are killed on our watch."
Japan has sought the international arrest of Sea Shepherd activists. Tokyo last week also pressed the visiting Dutch foreign minister, Maxime Verhagen, to stop "illegal" anti-whaling protests.
A Japanese official said US-based Sea Shepherd's Steve Irwin ship is registered in the Netherlands. Greenpeace's headquarters is also in Amsterdam.
Japan hunts whales despite a 1986 moratorium, using a loophole that allows "lethal research" on the ocean giants. Only Norway and Iceland defy the moratorium altogether.
The Tokyo government argues that Western opponents of whaling, led by Australia, are insensitive to Japan's culture of whaling.
But few Japanese eat whale on a regular basis and surveys show that many young people are questioning the hunt.
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