TOKYO – Japanese police arrested two Greenpeace activists on Friday on suspicion of stealing about 50 pounds of whale meat that the environmentalists said had been illegally siphoned by whalers from government-backed hunts.
Greenpeace members Junichi Sato, 31, and Toru Suzuki, 41, acknowledged that they took a container of meat from a postal company storage warehouse in Aomori, northern Japan, in April. But the group later handed over the meat, and said they had not committed a crime.
The Japanese government kills about 1,000 whales a year under a whaling program sanctioned by international rules, and sells the meat as food.
Greenpeace and other whaling opponents say the program is a cover for commercial hunting, which has been banned for major species since 1986.
Greenpeace presented the meat to authorities last month, saying it showed whalers operating on government-funded hunts were stealing whale meat for their own private use or to sell. The meat was taken from the offices of a private postal company. It was being shipped from a Tokyo port to the home of one of the whalers.
Greenpeace estimates the meat it took is worth as much as $3,300.
Postal firm Seino Holdings Co. Ltd. said the two Greenpeace activists illegally broke into its warehouse and stole the container. The company said Friday it hadn't decided on whether to demand compensation.
Apart from alleged theft, Sato and Suzuki were arrested for illegally breaking and entering, police said in a statement, and authorities also searched Greenpeace's office in Tokyo on Friday.
Yasuhi Tadano, a lawyer for Greenpeace, denounced the arrests.
"The arrests were unjust. The two had to resort to such means in order to get evidence of embezzlement," Tadano told reporters.
Greenpeace Executive Director Jun Hoshikawa called the arrests "an intimidation tactic" by the Japanese government.
Last month the environmental group asked the Tokyo Public Prosecutors to probe the alleged theft of meat by whalers, but the prosecutors' office said in a statement it dropped the case on Friday. It gave no further details.
The Japanese have hunted whales for centuries, and whale meat was widely eaten in the lean years after World War II.
The meat, however, has plunged in popularity in today's prosperous Japan and, while still on the menu in a few upscale Tokyo restaurants, is only eaten regularly in small coastal whaling communities.