The trial of Sea Shepherd cove guardian, Edwin Vermeulen, arrested last December in Taiji, Japan, for allegedly pushing a dolphin trainer, began on Jan. 26, with the Dutch national making his first appearance in court.
According to the conservation group's board Director, Dr. Bonny Shumaker, and Sea Shepherd Netherlands Director Geert Vons, who both attended the trial in support of Vermeulen, the dolphin activist appeared unkempt and 'visibly thinner' upon entering the courtroom.
Vermeulen has been held since his arrest on Dec. 16, after a Dolphin Resort Hotel employee in Taiji accused Vermeulen of pushing him during the transfer of a dolphin. The Dutch national, who was in Taiji to monitor the dolphin drives for Sea Shepherd, was arrested and held at the town's Shingu prison until his recent transfer to Wakayama, where he is standing trial.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), has maintained that Vermeulen was falsely accused and there are no witnesses to the alleged incident. The dolphin trainer, who appeared in court Thursday to testify differently, claimed the activist pushed him in the chest area.
"After the accuser gave his statement", SSCS said in a press release, "Erwin took the stand looking visibly thinner, fatigued, and had not been provided with a haircut or shave while detained."
The conservation group, whose popular show Whale Wars is one of the top rated shows on Animal Planet, slammed "the subpar conditions Erwin is being subjected to inside the Japanese prison system". When he was at Shingu prison they said, Vermeulen was fed nothing but white rice and was refused supplements. He was also they add, held "under solitary conditions and was not told what charges he was being held on until his transfer last week".
During the court proceedings, Japanese authorities asked Vermeulen to put on a jacket he wore at the time of the alleged incident. SSCS reported that Erwin stated, “I wish I had this in my cell because it’s freezing in there,” and when the court considered taking a break for dinner, Vermeulen objected. "I don’t need to eat," he said, it’s nice and warm in here. This is the first time in two weeks that I’ve been warm.”
What Vermeulen will face in the weeks to come is uncertainty in a legal system rife with integrity issues and imbalance. Back in 2004 for example, a 24-year-old Japanese woman was sentenced to three years in prison, suspended for four years by Judge Yoshitaka Onishi of the Otsu District Court, for writing e-mails that incited a man to kill a 21-year-old woman in Osaka in 2003.
Just this past September, calls grew for the retrial of a Nepalese man serving a life sentence for a 1997 murder in Tokyo, after a fresh DNA test revealed the possibility of innocence. Despite the new DNA evidence, prosecutors remain reluctant to reopen the case. Akira Kitani, a professor at the School of Law of Hosei University, said, "it is undeniable that judges tend to put more trust in investigative authorities than the defense."
In April of last year, Osaka's District Public Prosecutor's Office faced a scandal when former prosecutor Tsunehiko Maeda, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for altering data on a floppy disk. The case, covered by Hiroki Ogawa of The Diplomat, queried the "integrity of Japan's legal system', which he said, "clearly needs to be addressed".
Ogawa also addressed another case which he said tarred "the reputation of the legal system" in Japan, including the case of one Etsuko Yamada, a teacher at a school for the mentally handicapped. Accused of killing two students, the case led to an exchange of acquittals where, claims Ogawa, "prosecutors' recurring appeals were granted [...] in flagrant disregard of Article 39 of the Constitution," and led to the man being a defendant "for almost a quarter of a century".
The main problem with Japan's legal system concluded Ogawa, is that it is operated under civil law and not common law, and this allows "public prosecutors to wield significant investigative power in addition to their powers of prosecution, thereby making things like evidence tampering possible," he said. In addition, "Japan has an unusually high conviction rate in criminal trials of about 99 percent", said Ogawa, which lends support to Professor Kitani's assessment, of more trust being placed in the prosecution than the defense.
Meanwhile, Radio Netherlands is reporting that Dutch "Foreign Affairs Minister Uri Rosenthal, doesn’t want to interfere in the case, as he believes there will be a fair trial". Minister Rosenthal perhaps need to acquaint himself further with a legal system that convicts 99% of those accused and where keeping order, often takes precedence over establishing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
Vermeulen will remain in jail until his trial continues on Feb 01 when the defense will present their case. Closing arguments are scheduled for Feb. 16 with a verdict expected on Feb 22.
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