Another season of Animal Planet's Whale Wars is upon us. In fact it starts tonight, June 1, at 9pm ET/PT. Also in fact, the prime mover of the show, Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson, remains under house arrest in Germany.
For those that who haven't been following along for the past few weeks, Watson was arrested on a newly reissued Costa Rican warrant, in Germany, stemming from actions that occurred a decade ago. Everything about the warrant, the timing, the location of the arrest (Watson had entered a number of nations since the new warrant was issued late last year), is highly curious.
Yesterday I had a chance to get Paul on the phone and get his side of things. Here's the conversation that ensued:
TREEHUGGER: If you could give us a quick update on your situation in Germany, has anything changed in the past few days?
PAUL WATSON: We filed a motion to dismiss in Costa Rica. We should have an answer on that by Monday. If they dismiss it, I'm free to go. If not, then they have 90 days to send the [extradition] information and files to Germany. Then Germany can have an extradition trial. Now, if they decide they're not going to extradite me, I can go. If they decide they will extradite me, then it can go to the Ministers and they can make a political decision to not send me [to Costa Rica].
Here's the thing: Last week I met with the Foreign Minister of Costa Rica. I said, "I don't mind going to Costa Rica to stand trial. I'll bring my evidence and I'll bring my witnesses. But I'm not going to go to your country and wait for a year in a prison when you decide to set a trial." I think that's a reasonable request.
He said, "How do we know you're going to come?"
I said, "Because I've told the whole world I'm going to come. That's why. Look, there's no property damage; there's nobody injured. This is a couple of poachers making a complaint, and you've basically made a federal case out of it, ten years after the fact. What really is behind this?" Of course he wouldn't tell me that.
But I do know that the president of Costa Rica met with the president of Japan, in December. Which is pretty coincidental.
TH: It is. Which leads directly into my next question. Obviously the timing of the Costa Rican trip to Germany is coincidental with the exact timing of your arrest. But with all the back and forth between Costa Rica and Germany since the beginning of the year—Germany is Costa Rica's largest European trading partner—it seems that there could be something there. Why has Germany arrested you, rather than any of the other countries you've been to since the new warrant was issued? Is there some greater there?
PW: The thing is that INTERPOL voided the warrant because it was politically motivated. Apparently Germany is the only country that does that [didn't follow the INTERPOL finding]. Also, they don't have an extradition treaty with Costa Rica, so it makes even less sense. But apparently they just entertain everybody's extradition [requests]. Usually what happens is, if this is political, then they make that decision after the extradition is granted by the courts. Then they decide not to [proceed with it].
I don't think that either Germany or Costa Rica were really prepared for the response to this. It seems to have taken them completely by surprise. I know the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Justice Ministry, were like 'we don't really know what to do about this.' They even called our lawyer and asked, "Well, what are you going to do about this?"
Even the president of the Brazilian parliament put out a statement condemning Costa Rica for this.
TH: I had not seen that. I'd seen statements from members of the Australian government, and read the piece by a Costa Rica member of government demanding your release.
Let's talk about this bounty on your head, from the shark fin mafia, $20,000 or something. What's the origin of that?
PW: That was put out ten years ago. It was common knowledge among the rangers of Cocos Island. They were the ones who told me about it.
In 2001, Sea Shepherd intercepted an Ecuadorean long-liner off Cocos Island. We seized it, turned it over to the rangers. It was the San Jose. It became the first vessel confiscated by the Costa Rican courts. That became the basis for us going to Costa Rica to sign an agreement to protect the Cocos Islands.
Now, what happened is that these charges [the original ones leading to a new arrest warrant being issued last year] came two days before we could sign that agreement with the Costa Rican government. We had a lot of enemies there dead set against it. I think this whole thing was originally engineered by the shark fin mafia, in Punta Arenas, who had total control over the judges and the prosecutors in that town.
TH: Obviously shark finning goes on with local collusion and corruption. I don't know what level it goes up to. Recently Laura Chinchilla's government has been hit with a number of corruption scandals. A number of her ministers were forced to resign. The Minister of Justice has made statements about being tough on crime. And there seems to be a split in her government about what to do with you, the Minister of the Environment indicating that they might re-open the collaboration with Sea Shepherd. How do you think those domestic Costa Rican politics plays into your case?
PW: If they want to be tough on crime, they should be tough on the shark finners. Just a year ago Gordon Ramsey, the celebrity chef, investigating shark finning and the poachers through gasoline on him, threatening to light him on fire. [The government] did nothing about that.
Really what we have here is a couple of fishermen making a complaint without any evidence or documentation to back it up, against a vessel that had 25 witnesses aboard and cameras that recorded every single thing that went down.
That's why I'm confident that if this goes into court, we've got the evidence, we've got the witnesses... but I think it's completely unfair for them to ask me to sit in their prison for a year waiting to set a trial date.
TH: The Costa Rican government has assured your safety for the trial, but what would it take for you personally to be satisfied that you will be safe should you go?
PW: I know that it would be extremely dangerous to put me in the general prison population in Costa Rica. I think they should take my offer of going their for the trial. It will be the easiest and simplest thing to do. We've got a good legal team in Costa Rica and Germany, so we'll see where that goes.
I'm pretty confident that the German government will not extradite me to Costa Rica, no matter what. But that could take three months.
TH: The thing that stills sticks with me in all this is 'why now?' Why was this reopened now at this specific moment?
PW: In October 2011 the Japanese government received $30 million from the tsunami relief fund to come after Sea Shepherd. It helped finance security. It help finance the legal suit against us in Seattle, which they lost. I think they were looking for places all over the world where they could get a toe-hold on us.
Is it just a coincidence that Costa Rica filed this new warrant the same month that Japan filed a civil suit against us?
TH: So you believe that the timing of all this is directly related to the diversion of tsunami relief funds in whole or in part to Costa Rica?
PW: I think there's a connection, but I can't prove it. The shark finners in Punta Arenas also have a lot of political power. After all, there's a lot of money in shark finning. After guns and drugs, it's the next most lucrative criminal activity.