San José, Costa Rica, since 1956
Paul Watson

Will Captain Paul Watson be extradited?

From the print edition

A German court on Friday granted bail to marine conservationist Paul Watson German while authorities decide whether he can be extradited. Watson was in a German jail cell awaiting extradition orders to face charges in Costa Rica of attempted shipwrecking and damage to property. If convicted, he could face up to 15 years in prison.

The case has drawn international attention and outraged environmental groups in Costa Rica and abroad, who say the country is demonstrating a double standard on protecting marine resources – particularly the widespread practice of shark finning – at the same time it is selling the image of being a world leader in conservation.

German police arrested Watson, the 61-year-old founder of marine conservation group Sea Shepherd, at the Frankfurt airport on Sunday, following a Costa Rican arrest warrant issued by the Prosecutor’s Office last October. A German court on Monday ordered Watson to remain in custody pending the outcome of the extradition process, which is handled by Costa Rican and German foreign ministries.

A spokesman for Costa Rica’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to questions from The Tico Times by press time.

“My client is shocked,” Watson’s attorney, Oliver Wallasch, said following the arrest.

The case stems from an incident on April 22, 2002, when Capt. Watson and a crew aboard the Ocean Warrior (later renamed the Farley Mowat) were en route to Costa Rica to sign an agreement with the Costa Rican government to protect and patrol Cocos Island, a treasured protected marine area some 500 kilometers off the Pacific mainland, to counter widespread illegal fishing in the area.

Some 230 kilometers off the coast of Guatemala, the Ocean Warrior came upon Costa Rican fishing vessel Varadero I, owned by Franklin Martínez of Puntarenas, on the central Pacific coast. What happened next has been heatedly debated by Watson and his crew, and Martínez and the eight fishermen aboard the vessel that day.

According to Sea Shepherd’s version, the Ocean Warrior caught the Varadero I’s crew illegally shark-fishing by dropping an 80-kilometer longline within Guatemala’s 320-kilometer “no take” zone. Watson ordered the vessel to cut its line and release its catch. Sea Shepherd said at the time the vessel’s line had hooked and “strangled” at least 17 sharks during the encounter.

Watson’s crew filmed the incident with three video cameras, and used some of the footage in “Sharkwater,” a documentary about shark finning released later that year.

“On order of the Guatemalan authorities, Sea Shepherd instructed the crew of the Varadero I to cease their shark finning activities and head back to port to be prosecuted,” the group said in a statement this week.

It claimed that while escorting the Varadero I back to port, the tables were turned and a Guatemalan gunboat was dispatched to intercept the Sea Shepherd crew.

“The crew of the Varadero accused the Sea Shepherds of trying to kill them, while the video evidence proves this to be a fallacy,” said the group, which was set up in 1977 to campaign against the slaughter of ocean wildlife.

“To avoid the Guatemalan gunboat, Sea Shepherd then set sail for Costa Rica, where they uncovered even more illegal shark finning activities in the form of dried shark fins by the thousands on the roofs of industrial buildings,” the statement said.

The Varadero I also set course for Costa Rica, pursued by Watson and his crew. When the two boats arrived in Costa Rican waters, local Coast Guard officials intercepted them, and Watson was detained on charges of attempted murder and attempted shipwrecking.

The Varadero I crew said the boat had engine trouble and accidentally drifted into Guatemalan waters, where the Ocean Warrior attacked them. They denied allegations that they had been illegally fishing for sharks, and two fishermen said they were injured during the alleged attack.

Shortly after Watson’s arrest, prosecutors in Puntarenas dropped charges of attempted murder and said they would not pursue other charges of attempted shipwrecking and damage to property after viewing Sea Shepherd’s video footage of the incident. A prosecutor told Watson and his attorney at the time that there was no evidence of wrongdoing (TT, May 10, 2003).

But prosecutors later reversed that decision and formally charged Watson with attempted shipwrecking and damage to property in early May 2002. In the month following the incident, four different prosecutors and three different judges handled the case. Environmental groups at the time claimed the case was orchestrated by the Puntarenas Fisherman’s Chamber to scuttle the Cocos Island patrol agreement, a charge both the chamber and then-Prosecutor Rodrigo Vásquez denied.

Watson, whom Sea Shepherd members affectionately call “the captain” and who looks the part with a thick shock of white hair and beard, fled Costa Rica, and officials issued a warrant for his arrest, which went unenforced for nearly a decade.

Wallasch said after Monday’s court hearing that his client must remain in custody until the Costa Rican extradition request is considered, adding that he did not know how long the process would take.

Watson was passing through Frankfurt on his way to France to attend conferences when he was arrested, said a member of Sea Shepherd’s German branch, Olav Jost, who was with Watson during the first hours of his detention.

“He was extremely surprised at being stopped since he has visited Germany and elsewhere in Europe in the past without any problems,” Jost said.

Watson was being assisted while in custody by European Parliament members Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Jose Bove.

“Our hope is that these two honorable gentlemen can set Captain Watson free before this nonsense goes any further,” Sea Shepherd said.

According to Sea Shepherd, Costa Rica’s arrest warrant last October coincided with a civil case against the group by Japan’s Institute of Cetacean Research, Australian newspaper The Age reported.

“It is no coincidence that the extradition request by Costa Rica was issued the same month as the Japanese lawsuit against Sea Shepherd was initiated,” Watson told The Age.

The newspaper also reported that the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs has the authority to stop extradition procedures on political grounds. As of press time, German officials had not announced whether they would grant the extradition request.

In Costa Rica, environmental groups also are pressuring the government to intervene to stop extradition from moving forward. But members of President Laura Chinchilla’s administration are distancing themselves from the case and treating it as a criminal matter to be handled by the courts.

“We understand that Costa Rica’s image can be affected [by this case], as well as the work of environmental organizations, but this issue is out of Executive Branch’s control because of separation of powers, and we hope that nongovernmental organizations understand this,” Communications Minister Francisco Chacón told local online news agency

Environment Minister René Castro also told that “we cannot interfere with the work of other government branches.”

That hasn’t stopped environmental groups from calling on Chinchilla and Castro to exercise special Executive powers.

“We want Chinchilla to issue an official pardon,” said Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program, a Costa Rica-based marine conservation group. “We should invite [Watson] to Costa Rica and have an official ‘we’re sorry’ event.”


Conservationist arrested in Germany on charges from Costa Rica

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