Auckland anti-whaling activist Peter Bethune is expected home at the weekend, deported from Japan with a suspended sentence for obstructing a whaling fleet in the Antarctic Ocean.
The Tokyo District Court today sentenced Bethune, 45, to two years in prison, suspended for five years.
The former activist of the US-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been held in custody since February after he boarded the Japanese whaling fleet's security ship the Shonan Maru II during its annual whaling hunt in southern waters.
One of Bethune's lawyers, Dan Harris, said he had been hoping his client would get a suspended sentence and be released but he said the New Zealander had still steeled himself to serve a jail term.
After today's sentencing Bethune said, "All I wanted was justice for the loss of my boat, the Ady Gil, and the attempted murder of my crew."
He said all he did was to board the boat that he felt deliberately attacked and sunk his vessel.
"I wanted justice for the loss of my boat and the attempted murder of my crew. I still want justice, and I strongly urge the Australian and New Zealand Maritime Authorities to continue putting pressure on the Japanese whalers to co-operate with their investigations into the collision."
Bethune said he was very relieved and thankful at the decision from the Japanese court and grateful to his legal team in Japan.
"I am truly sorry for all the trouble and worry this has caused my family and am desperate to get back home to see them. I also want to thank all the supporters world-wide who have been sending messages and signing petitions, and the media, who have been keeping this story in the public eye."
Bethune's wife, Sharyn, earlier said that she was looking at taking his two teenage daughters, Danielle, 15, and Alycia, 13, to visit him in jail if it turned out that he was required to serve a long jail sentence.
Bethune is being deported from Japan and is expected to arrive in New Zealand on Saturday morning.
Admitted obstruction, denied assault
He admitted four charges of obstructing commercial activities and trespass, vandalism and carrying a knife, which he used to cut security netting on the whaling ship he boarded.
But Bethune denied a charge of assault, in which prosecutors said a 24-year-old whaler suffered chemical splash burns to his face during a February 11 confrontation in which Sea Shepherd activists hurled butyric acid stink bombs.
"I did not have the intention of hurting crew members. I took action because I wanted to stop Japan's illegal whaling," Bethune said in his final statement last month, which he tearfully delivered in Japanese.
Protests were held outside the Tokyo District Court in advance of the sentencing, with some placards branding the New Zealander as a "racist and eco-terrorist".
Japan hunts whales under a loophole in an international moratorium that allows killing of the ocean giants for what it calls "scientific research", although the meat is later sold openly in shops and restaurants.
The New Zealander was captain of the group's futuristic carbon-and-kevlar powerboat, the trimaran Ady Gil - formerly his round-the-world record-setting trimaran Earthrace - which sank after a January 6 collision with the fleet's security ship.
On February 15 Bethune boarded the Shonan Maru II from a jet ski before dawn, with the stated intent of making a citizen's arrest of its captain and presenting him with a $US3 million bill for the Ady Gill.
Instead, he was detained and taken back to Japan, where he was formally arrested on March 12 and has been in detention since.
The Sea Shepherd group has pursued and harassed Japanese whalers in Antarctic waters for years - most recently in the 2009-2010 season, a campaign which both sides said reduced the Japanese cull by several hundred whales.
A brave Kiwi
Green Party co-leader Russel Norman said Bethune was a brave Kiwi who protected whales when his government would not "and we look forward to his return to New Zealand".
"Pete is a hero to many New Zealanders who are opposed to the Japanese government's whaling regime. Were it not for his activism many more whales would have been slaughtered this year," Norman said.
Labour's Conservation spokesperson Chris Carter also welcomed the news of the suspended sentence.
"I am a longstanding critic of Japan's whaling policy," Carter said. "However I applaud the Japanese justice system for its humane approach, which has recognised that Peter pleaded guilty to the charges he was facing in Tokyo but has not acted like a terrorist or a hijacker."
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