It has been nearly six weeks since Paul Watson was arrested by German authorities based on criminal charges filed by prosecutors in Costa Rica more than 10 years ago. Mr. Watson is the controversial founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the star of Whale Wars, the popular Animal Planet reality television show that follows him and his crew as they disrupt whaling operations around the world. Mr. Watson posted bond in Frankfurt, and he is currently fighting an extradition request that could bring him back to Costa Rica to answer the charges against him: endangerment of a vessel and crew at sea with intent to cause a shipwreck.
Mr. Watson’s arrest has polarized opinions around the world, and while people discuss the merits of the charges filed against him and his controversial life, the work of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) continues, the latest season of Whale Wars enjoys good ratings, and the legal process slowly moves forward.
The three main parties involved in the matter -Mr. Watson, Costa Rica and Germany- are currently maneuvering the intricate process of extradition. The formal extradition request by Costa Rica was tendered only about twelve days ago, slowed down by the translations and the authentication of documents since it was not too long ago that the country became a participant in the Apostille Convention of The Hague. In an interview with Jerry Cope of OpEd News, Mr. Watson explained that his legal team has filed a Motion to Dismiss based on what he sees as inaccuracies in the arrest warrant.
In San Jose, Mr. Watson’s attorney has been busy defending his client. According to David Delgado of La Nacion, attorney Federico Morales has filed a pleading that indicates procedural failures -specifically that Mr. Watson was not properly served with a legal complaint in his home in Canada. Mr. Morales explains that hearings have taken place, but the matter has not been resolved.
The Varadero Incident Revisited
In the meantime, the incident that started the current mess has been revisited by the prominent newspaper La Nacion in Costa Rica and by the media arm of the SSCS. On the June 3rd Sunday edition of La Nacion, Alonso Mata Blanco published a lengthy interview with crew members of the Fishing Vessel Varadero I, who claim to have been attacked by Mr. Watson and his Sea Shepherd crew back in 2002. On June 22nd, the SSCS published an article entitled “The Scandalous Crime of Saving Sharks In Shady Costa Rica“, which gives its own version of the incident, justifies it, and lists eleven other fishing vessels from Costa Rica that it claims have been caught thanks to a cooperation agreement with Ecuadorian authorities.
As expected, the versions of the events by the SSCS and by the crew members of the F/V Varadero I differ in many aspects. The article in La Nacion describes a nightmare in which the Sea Shepherd vessel Ocean Warrior, which is now known as the Research Vessel Farley Mowat and is no longer at the service of the SSCS, repeatedly attempted to ram the Varadero until successfully striking her on the port side of the berth near the bow. Mr. Watson has often explained that the vessels collided when the Varadero tried to escape, after pyrotechnic flares and water cannons were used against the fishermen.
The most recent SSCS article about the Varadero incident states that she had been caught by the coast guard service of Ecuador near Galapagos Island a year before her encounter with the R/V Ocean Warrior. The Varadero was allegedly fined for illegal fishing. The SSCS article also states that Mr. Watson and his crew were allowed to take action against the Varadero because they had permission from Guatemalan authorities, and also because they had allegedly spotted shark fin poaching in progress. The recent SSCS articles explains that:
“Sea Shepherd received permission from the government of Guatemala to intervene to stop their illegal activities. The crew of the Ocean Warrior did so without causing any injuries and without causing any damage to the Varadero I.”
A 2002 article by Lauren Wolkoff of the San Francisco Chronicle explains it differently:
“The [Sea Shepherd] ship’s log acknowledges the crew used water hoses and fired a flare after the Varadero I attempted to flee. They “collided” when the Farley Mowat [Ocean Warrior] came alongside.”
The SF Chronicle added that:
“Watson is no stranger to controversy — nor to ramming boats. [… ] In the past, Sea Shepherd boats have rammed whalers off the coast of Portugal, interfered with the activities of Canadian harp sealers and been fired upon by the Norwegian navy during a campaign against the slaughter of whales.”
One would think that Mr. Watson’s reputation would precede him and could be used against him in a vessel ramming case. Fans of Whale Wars know that Mr. Watson is known to maneuver dangerously close to other vessels at sea when it comes to disrupting whaling operations -and that’s when the cameras are rolling. Such behavior and reputation would probably not bode well for Mr. Watson in a court of common law before a jury; it would be too easy for a prosecuting attorney to engage in character assassination. Costa Rica is not a common law country, and Mr. Watson will not face a jury. What can Mr. Watson expect should he be extradited?
Legal Wrangling Ahead
A lot has been discussed and speculated about Mr. Watson’s arrest. He has received an outpouring of support from followers, celebrities and politicians all over the world, even here in Costa Rica -to wit: legislator Claudio Monge and organizations like Selva-Tica and “The People of Costa Rica Ask for Paul Watson’s Release” (currently about 600 followers on Facebook).
Mr. Watson and the SSCS have mentioned political motivations behind his current ordeal, and even the involvement of an ominous and lethal Taiwanese shark finning mafia. The initial statements by Mr. Watson and SSCS were strong and colorful, comparing prisons in Costa Rica to death sentences and calling for tourism boycotts, but emotions have subsided since then and now all parties are concentrating on the legal issues at hand.
A previous article in The Costa Rica Star compared Mr. Watson’s extradition ordeal with that of Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks who is currently seeking asylum in the Embassy of Ecuador in London so that he can avoid extradition to Sweden (coincidentally, the Sea Shepherd organization has been recognized by the Ecuadorian government for their work in Galapagos).
One fact not mentioned in that article was that diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks showed how much of an impact Mr. Watson and the SSCS has had on the Japanese whaling industry. Mr. Watson was kind enough to point out that fact as he responded to replies left on that article through the Facebook commenting system:
“In fact WikiLeaks has provided Sea Shepherd with valuable and very helpful information over the last few years.”
Mr. Watson also responded to a comment made by a reader who asserted that SSCS had committed a crime:
“An alleged crime Mr. Franceschi [the commenter], involving a Guatemalan request to stop an illegal shark finning operation in Guatemalan waters. No one was injured, no property damaged, just the allegation of a couple of poachers in a nation where the illegal operations involving shark poaching have brought in millions of dollars. Sea Shepherd has never claimed to be above the law. What we do is uphold the law!”
As can be seen in Mr. Watson’s comments, he stands by his actions and his work. He has also offered and promised to answer to the charges in Puntarenas if the request for extradition to Costa Rica is withdrawn. He knows that even if the extradition does not take place, he still has to worry about the criminal complaint and a civil demand in the amount of $110,000 from the owner of the Varadero I.
Mr. Watson’s sentiment of upholding the law will not help him too much with regard to the charges he is facing. The legal system of Costa Rica is based on civil law, which is inquisitorial by nature. He will have to refute any preponderance of evidence presented against him. To this extent, it is not clear whether the prosecution will resort to a strategy of citing Maritime or Admiralty Law. Should this be the case, Mr. Watson’s defense will have quite a bit of work ahead.
Mr. Watson has to prove he did not willfully endanger the Varadero. Dr. David Caron, a legal expert interviewed by Animal Planet about Whale Wars, once commented on the activities of the Sea Shepherd vessels:
“Speaking from someone who (…) has gone to sea, these things [that Sea Shepherds are alleged to have done] are all dangerous, everything that’s done. Normally on the bridge of a ship, if a ship appears on the horizon, you start to get nervous. Because collisions happen, even though the ocean’s so big. For someone to follow you so closely, for someone to close on your vessel — to throw things on your deck — is a very, very risky operation.”
What Dr. Caron is referring to is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982, something that a salty mariner like Mr. Watson is certainly very familiar with. The work of Mr. Watson and Sea Shepherd, as can be seen on Whale Wars, looks like it endangers the vessels they intend to disrupt -for the benefit of the aquatic life they are committed to protect.