Japan has agreed to release three Australian anti-whaling activists who illegally boarded a Japanese whaling support vessel two days ago.
An Australian customs ship had been sent to retrieve the men — members of the Australian environmental group Forest Rescue — from the patrol boat Shonan Maru 2, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said at a widely reported news conference late Tuesday.
The trio boarded in international waters off the coast of Western Australia as it set sail with the whaling fleet for the annual hunt in Antarctic waters on Sunday.
(GlobalPost reports: Appeals for release of 3 Australians held aboard Japanese whaling ship)
Speculation quickly mounted that the men would be taken to Japan to face criminal charges, as has happened previously when activists have boarded Japanese whaling vessels at sea.
However, CNN quoted an official at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs as saying the whaling fleet needed the Shonan Maru 2 to continue with its hunt.
The men — Geoffrey Owen Tuxworth, 47, Simon Peterffy, 44, and Glen Pendlebury, 27 — would be released without charge after being questioned by Japan's Coast Guard.
"They have not been violent after getting on board and had no record of joining past destructive actions by Sea Shepherd," the official reportedly said, referring to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society — an anti-whaling group that has clashed several times with the Japanese fleet.
Australia's attorney-general, Nicola Roxon, said Monday that despite the country's steadfast opposition to Japan's whale hunt — Australia has filed a complaint against Tokyo at the International Court of Justice in the Hague over whaling — there was little the Australian government could do but appeal to Japan through diplomatic channels for their release.
As the men boarded the patrol boat in international waters, Australian law did not automatically apply to the case, she said.
Gillard thanked the Japanese government but criticized the actions of them men, saying it "will be ultimately costly to the Australian taxpayer."
Despite the fact that the activists were helped by the Sea Shepherd, which is tailing the Japanese whaling fleet as it heads towards the Southern Ocean, Sea Shepherd skipper Paul Watson has refused to contribute to the cost of rescuing them, according to News.com.au.
"The suggestion by Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Attorney General Nicola Roxon that Sea Shepherd help foot the bill for the recovery of three Australian citizens from the Shonan Maru #2 is absurd,” he reportedly said.
He also listed "10 valid reasons" why he "should not, and will not" pay a cent on the Sea Shepherd blog.
Sea Shepherd says on its website that it will pursue the whaling fleet throughout its Antarctic hunt, funding three ships with 88 crew members.
A spokesman for Forest Rescue Australia told News that he believed the protest was worthwhile and that the men would do the same thing again.
Gillard reportedly said the agreement with Japan on the release of the the men did not mean that individuals will not be charged for taking similar actions in the future.
In 2010, Peter Bethune, the skipper of a New Zealand boat, was put on trial in Japan after boarding the Shonan Maru 2 and attempting to make a citizen's arrest on the ship's captain. Bethune was hit with a suspended prison term.
Commercial whaling is banned under an international treaty, but Japan continues to hunt using a loophole that allows whaling in the name of science, a practice condemned by environmentalists and anti-whaling nations.