TOKYO – TOKYO (AP) — The Japanese Coast Guard has obtained an arrest warrant for the leader of the Sea Shepherd environmental group for its disruption of Japan's annual whale hunts, media reports said Friday.
The move would be the latest in an increasingly aggressive campaign against the radical conservationists by Tokyo, which accuses them of endangering lives during the Antarctic hunt. U.S.-based Sea Shepherd has long insisted that the Japanese fleet is conducting banned commercial whaling under the guise of scientific research.
The warrant is for Paul Watson, the Canadian founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, on suspicion of assault and obstruction of business, Kyodo News agency reported, citing investigative sources. It did not say which court issued the warrant.
Watson, who was believed to be in New York, said in a statement that he was being targeted by Tokyo because of the damage his anti-whaling campaigns have caused.
"The Japanese government is desperate to stop the Sea Shepherd ships from returning to the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary for the 2010 and 2011 season. There is no doubt that the motives of the Japanese Coast Guard and the Japanese government are political," he said in a statement.
A Coast Guard spokesman would not comment directly on whether a warrant has been issued for Watson, saying only that he was part of a continuing investigation into Sea Shepherd's activities against the Japanese whaling fleet.
Spokesman Masahiro Ichijo said that if a warrant was issued for someone in a foreign country, Tokyo would generally negotiate directly with that country on how to proceed. National broadcaster NHK said the Coast Guard wanted Watson placed on the wanted list of Interpol, the international police agency.
Watson was to scheduled sail on the Sea Shepherd flagship Saturday from New York for the Mediterranean, on a campaign to protect bluefin tuna.
The longtime environmental activist was an early member of Greenpeace, but after a disagreement with that group founded Sea Shepherd to "pursue direct action conservation activities on the high seas," according to its website.
Watson captains one of the Sea Shepherd ships that each year seeks to disrupt Japan's whaling activities in the Antarctic seas by trying to disable or cut off the Japanese ships. Confrontations have sometimes turned violent, including collisions in icy waters.
Japan has recently struck back. Last month, a protester who had climbed aboard a whaling vessel was formally arrested, and Tokyo issued a request to Australian authorities that led to a police search of Sea Shepherd anti-whaling boats.
Japan each year hunts hundreds of mostly minke whales — which are not an endangered species — under a research program, an allowed exception under international law. Excess meat is sold for consumption, leading critics to call the program a cover for commercial hunts.
Japan, Norway and Iceland continue to hunt whales under various exceptions, despite a 1986 international moratorium on whaling. A proposal put forward by the International Whaling Commission last week would effectively allow these countries to begin commercial whaling again, though under strict quotas overseen by the commission.