SYDNEY (Reuters) - Three Australian anti-whaling protesters detained after boarding a Japanese vessel in the Indian Ocean will be released to an Australian customs ship in a high-seas transfer and will not face any charges, Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Tuesday.
The three men, who illegally boarded a support vessel, the Shonan Maru 2, in darkness off the coast of Western Australia Sunday, were facing possible charges under Japanese law.
“We thank the Japanese government for their cooperation in this matter,” Gillard said through a spokesman.
“Activity of the nature undertaken by these three Australians is unacceptable. No-one should assume that because an agreement has been reached with the Japanese government in this instance, that individuals will not be charged and convicted in the future.”
Australia staunchly opposes Japan’s annual whaling in the Southern Ocean, but says the only way to stop the practice is through international court action, not dangerous, high-seas protests.
Last year, Australia filed a complaint against Japan at the world court in the Hague to stop Southern Ocean scientific whaling. A decision is expected in 2013 or later.
The three activists from the Australian group Forest Rescue boarded the Shonan Maru 2 with assistance from Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, whose ships are trying to tail the Japanese whaling fleet as it heads toward the Southern Ocean.
Last season, Japan cut short its annual whale hunt with less than a fifth of their quota in response to Sea Shepherd harassment which saw an activist boat -- The Ady Gil -- sunk in a collision with a Japanese ship.
In 2008 Australian Benjamin Potts and another anti-whaling activist boarded a Japanese whaler in the Southern Ocean and after a few days onboard detention were also handed over to an Australian Customs vessel.
Japan -- which along with Iceland and Norway is one of one three countries that hunt whales -- introduced scientific whaling to skirt the commercial whaling ban under a 1986 moratorium. It argues it has a right to monitor the whales’ impact on its fishing industry.
Reporting by Michael Perry; Editing by Ed Lane