Erwin with Otis: Otis was a rescue from a cruelty situation.

Thursday January 26 marked the start of court proceedings for Dutch Cove Guardian Erwin Vermeulen, who has been detained for more than 40 days on false charges of assault. Erwin was in Taiji documenting the town’s annual dolphin massacre, which runs from September until March, in an effort to bring global awareness to this horrific slaughter, when he was falsely accused of pushing one of the dolphin resort employees.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society had a definitive presence in the courtroom. Board Director Dr. Bonny Shumaker and Sea Shepherd Netherlands Director Geert Vons made the trip to Japan to support Erwin. Also in attendance were Cove Guardian campaign leader, Scott West, as well as 5 volunteers; none were allowed contact with Erwin.

Until last week, Erwin was being held in the Shingu jail, near Taiji. He has now been transferred to Wakayama, where the trial will take place. Erwin has been kept under solitary conditions and was not told what charges he was being held on until his transfer last week. He has been denied contact with anyone in the outside world including loved ones and fellow Sea Shepherd volunteers. He has been refused any reading material while detained and has been subject to continual interrogation.

Even more shocking is the fact that while in Shingu, Erwin was fed a diet of mostly-if not all- white rice and his requests for nutritional supplements were denied.

The Dolphin Resort trainer who accused Erwin of pushing him gave his statement before the judge. The trainer claims Erwin pushed him in the chest area. The accuser’s account of the incident appeared to be inconsistent with the written statement he provided to the police a few days after the alleged incident. The prosecution went so far as to try and obtain DNA evidence to prove Erwin touched the man. Police collected “foreign matters” from around the trainer’s chest, but the DNA test was negative.  This test was presented in court and proved, even scientifically, that there was no contact between the two men.

After the accuser gave his statement, Erwin took the stand looking visibly thinner, fatigued, and had not been provided with a haircut or shave while detained.

The prosecution began by attempting to trick Erwin into making harmful remarks about Sea Shepherd; these attempts failed.  He maintains that he had no contact with the trainer and that his hands were full carrying a tripod, camera, and communication radio- leaving no free hand for him to push the man. In his recounting of events, Erwin said he passed a so-called roadblock and that the trainer was on his cell phone and did not even notice him until he was 20 meters past the barricade. Shortly afterwards the Taiji police arrived. Erwin stated that at the time they did not mention anything about the alleged assault, only that he had crossed a no trespassing sign. Only some time later after the Wakayama police and the accuser spent more time conversing, and Erwin and the rest of the Cove Guardians were preparing to leave, did the police inform Erwin that the trainer was claiming he had been pushed.

The prosecution proceeded to bring up irrelevant accusation of trespassing and how taking photos of people who don’t want to be photographed is offensive. Erwin’s reply was “Yes, well I am offended by the dolphin slaughter. It’s not a crime to offend, but I’m not here for photos or trespassing, I’m here for pushing.” He also pointed out to the court that the Cove Guardians have a silent agreement with the police “when we see a sign, we enter once and the English speaking police will tell us if it’s legal or not. The locals always ignore the signs, only they are never reprimanded.”

During the court proceeding Erwin alludes to the conditions inside his jail cell. He was asked to

put on the jacket he was wearing during the alleged crime, as a reenactment for the court. Erwin remarked “I wish I had this in my cell because it’s freezing in there.” When the court was considering taking a break for dinner Erwin said, “ I don’t need to eat. It’s nice and warm in here. This is the first time in two weeks that I’ve been warm.”

It is important to remember that Erwin Vermeulen is being held on charges of simple assault, due to an accusation that he merely pushed another person, and is being subjected to highly inhumane conditions. The conviction rate in Japanese courts is 99% and most detainees confess very quickly. It is easy to see why, after learning of the subpar conditions Erwin is being subjected to inside the Japanese prison system. Through the course of his imprisonment and harsh treatment, Erwin has maintained his innocence and Sea Shepherd will do everything in our power to see him free and justice served.

The trial continues February 1st when the defense will present their case and a Sea Shepherd witness will be allowed to give a testimony. Closing arguments are scheduled for February 16th with a verdict on February 22nd, meaning Erwin will spend another month in jail on a ludicrous charge. If convicted Erwin could face up to two years in prison along with a large fine.

Following the court proceedings, Sea Shepherd Netherlands Director Geert Vons had the following statement:

“Erwin Vermeulen has now become a trump card in the dispute between Japan and the Netherlands over whaling. Sea Shepherd’s ships are registered in the Netherlands and every year when the whale hunt starts Japan complains to the Netherlands about environmental activists hindering its whale hunters.

The charges against Erwin were only clearly stated on Saturday. He is being treated like a notorious criminal. He is not allowed any contact with the outside world, or any letters. It is a very, very sad story. I had expected more support from the Dutch Government, for a Dutch national.”

According to the Dutch Animal Rights Party, Foreign Affairs Minister Uri Rosenthal is “not doing enough” and they want a debate about the issue in the Lower House. According to Esther Ouwehand, one of the party’s two members of parliament, Japan has a reputation for arresting activists who it regards as “hindering” whale hunts for political reasons. Ouwehand wants Rosenthal to summon the Japanese ambassador.

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