Peter Bethune was detained after boarding a Japanese whaling vessel in the Antarctic Ocean in February. The Sea Shepherd activist wanted to make a citizen's arrest of the captain for running over and sinking his speed boat, alleging that he and his crew were nearly killed. Instead Mr Bethune was taken to Tokyo and now he faces charges of trespass, obstructing the passage of a vessel, carrying a knife and damaging property. The most serious charge against him is causing bodily injury with the Japanese claiming he injured a crewman by throwing rancid butter at a whaling ship. In Japan inflicting bodily injury carries a maximum jail term of 15 years or a fine of up to US$6,000.
Presenter: Mark Willacy, North Asia Correspondent, ABC
Speaker: Dan Harris, lawyer representing Peter Bethune
DAN HARRIS: Very disappointed and surprised. I expected more from the Japanese legal system. Obviously I overestimated them.
I thought that they were going to treat this as a legal matter which is what a sophisticated legal system is supposed to do. But instead they are clearly treating it as a political matter and it seems they want a political show trial.
MARK WILLACY: Mr Bethune is facing some very serious charges, possibly the most serious being causing bodily injury. What do you know about that charge and what sort of penalty does it bring?
DAN HARRIS: On one level they're serious charges. On another level they're laughable and absurd.
In terms of the length of the sentence they're serious charges. If you look at it from the perspective of a lawyer they're a joke.
MARK WILLACY: The Japanese certainly don't think it's a joke. They say they have footage of Mr Bethune throwing a container of butyric acid which allegedly hit the whaling ship and then sprayed onto a crewman causing him facial injuries. What do you say to that particular allegation?
DAN HARRIS: Well there are two absurdities involved in that.
Number one I don't believe that they have the evidence that they claim to have. But more importantly the Sea Shepherd organisation has always stressed not harming anyone and what was in those bottles was not harmful.
Number two the physics involved in what the Japanese are claiming is pretty much impossible because the bottle hit the ship and then they're claiming that instead of the liquid going down, it went maybe 20 feet up. That's pretty unlikely.
What we believe happened is that the Japanese crew was trying to spray the crew of the Ady Gil with pepper spray and the wind blew the pepper spray onto the Japanese crew.
MARK WILLACY: There is another charge that Mr Bethune was armed when he went on board the Shonan Maru 2, that he was armed with a knife. Is that true?
DAN HARRIS: He was not armed. He had a knife like every - virtually everyone who - sailor on a vessel they have a knife as a tool. It was not a weapon. He never showed it. He never brandished it.
I think that they have, that their legal system has been hijacked by the small but very, very powerful and connected group of whalers.
MARK WILLACY: From your perspective as a lawyer, a United States lawyer, what now is your interpretation of how the Japanese legal system works?
DAN HARRIS: I am calling this a political show trial.
And two weeks ago I would never have used language like this because I actually believed in the system. And I believed that they felt they had to take him in. They would look at this. They would maybe charge him with trespassing, just cut a deal with him and let him go.
He's been in jail for weeks now and he's not going to be let out on bond. I mean it's just this whole thing has been completely blown out of proportion.
MARK WILLACY: Obviously this is now a criminal case in terms of some of those charges. In Japan as you're well aware the conviction rate in criminal cases is well over 99 per cent. It doesn't leave you with much hope there for Mr Bethune does it?
DAN HARRIS: I think there's still a lot of hope. There's hope that Japan will come to its senses and drop the charges.
There's hope that Japan will come to its senses and the court will look, the judge will look at this and even if he is found guilty will say: Guilty of what? There's really nothing much here. Let's release him for time served. This is not good for Japan. This is not the case that warrants the charges that have been brought.