Paul Watson, the Canadian-born founder the Sea Shepherd Society whom we featured in a recent Maclean’s article, was released on bail from a German jail earlier this week. But the environmental activist still faces extradition to Costa Rica to answer decade old charges that he and his crew endangered a ship during a confrontation with fishermen who were killing sharks for their fins. On Wednesday, he spoke to Maclean’s Jonathon Gatehouse from Frankfurt.
Q: In the course of your career you’ve found yourself in jail a number of times. What were the German accommodations like?
A: Not as good as a Dutch jail. Mostly it was pretty boring, but I was only in there for a week. And during that time, we were able to organize an international response, which has been very positive. Today, I just came back from a demonstration in Berlin where we had 400 people. And we’ve also had demonstrations in Costa Rica, Hong Kong, Australia, Seattle, New York—worldwide really—all directed at the Germans. So they’re certainly getting the message. And I’m talking with the Costa Ricans right now and they’re starting to realize that this is getting a little ridiculous; I mean I didn’t injure anybody. I didn’t damage any property. Basically, I interfered with an illegal operation and they’re calling for extradition on it 10 years later, which seems a little bizarre.
Q: You’ve suggested that these charges are politically motivated. How so?
A: Actually, I never made that accusation; it was Interpol that dismissed them as politically motivated. They were dismissed from the red list. And Germany ignored that.
Q: You’ve said that at the time of the confrontation you were operating under the authority of the Guatemalan government?
A: Yes, when we found the Costa Rican vessel, we had them under observation for a couple of hours while we waited for a response from the Guatemalan ministry of the environment. And they said, ‘ok, escort them in.’ And that’s what we did and it was all in Guatemalan waters.
Q: The Costa Rican authorities investigated the allegations at the time, and you cooperated with them. Did they give you a sense that it was all over?
A: Yeah, we got to Costa Rica a couple of days later—we were actually there to sign an agreement to help protect Cocos Island [an offshore marine reserve]. And when we got there we were boarded by a judge and a prosecutor and police. These fisherman had said that we threatened to kill them, which we hadn’t. Everything is on film. We were making the movie Sharkwater. So we went into the courtroom and showed our evidence and film and they spoke to our witnesses and everything was dismissed. So we were getting ready to go to Cocos Island and two days later they boarded us again, because they had apparently appointed another judge and another prosecutor who had charged us all over again. So we went back into the courtroom and they dismissed it again. And then we were out on Cocos Island and I got a call from my ship’s agent telling me they were going to arrest me again. And that there was a law in Costa Rica where they could hold me for a year while they investigated the allegation. And I decided I wasn’t playing that game, so we left for Panama.
Q: You’ve also said that you fear for your safety if you are extradited back to Costa Rica. Why is that?
A: Well, it’s the shark fin mafia. Their leader is this half-Taiwanese, half-Costa Rican guy, and we’ve busted about 65 poaching vessels, mostly in the Galapagos Islands, and a lot of them belong to him. He put out a $25,000 hit on me. And he even put hits out on the sniffer dogs that we had supplied to the federal police—$3,000 or $4,000 each. We’re costing them millions of dollars.
Q: And you see his hand at work in the resurrection of these charges?
A: I don’t know whose hand is at work here. It’s hard to say. But I do find it extremely coincidental that they initiated these charges in Oct. 2011. Japan took us to court in the US on a civil suit [over disrupting their whaling activities], which they lost, that month. And in October 2011, [Japanese whalers] were allocated $30 million from the Tsunami relief fund to basically oppose us. It’s paying for litigation and public relations and security on the high seas against us.
Q: Japan did have you placed on the Interpol watch list, correct?
A: Yeah, on the Interpol blue list, but it doesn’t mean anything.
Q: But if it’s the Japanese that want to get you, why would they go to the trouble of arranging all this through a third party?
A: Because they don’t have evidence to get me on anything. We haven’t broken any laws, really. They only thing they have is all this false information that was provided to them by Pete Bethune, who was the captain on the [sunken Sea Shepherd boat] Ady Gil. He basically tried to extort me and made all these allegations and I threw him out of the organization. I think they’re trying to build a case of obstructing business, but they obviously don’t have anything since they haven’t laid a charge.
Q: My understanding is that the Germans can hold you for 90 days while they process the extradition request. What’s your next step?
A: Right now we’ve got a legal team in Costa Rica, and a legal team here in Germany—one of the best extradition lawyers in the country. And we’re also speaking with the Costa Rican government. We want to work with Costa Rica, not against them. And we would like to resume our cooperation with the Cocos Island rangers.
Q: I see that Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla is actually in Germany at the moment. Have you been able to speak with her, or the people around her?
A: Well, she passed by our demonstration in Berlin today. But I’ll be speaking to representatives of the Costa Rican government in Stuttgart tomorrow.
Q: President Chinchilla has given assurances that you’ll face a fair trial…
A: Well, that’s probably right. But I’m not concerned about the legal system, I’m concerned about the jail system. When you get into a system where you can have contact with people who put a price on your head, that’s very worrying.
Q: Is your absence going to have any effect on Sea Shepherd?
A: No, our campaigns are on schedule. If I’m not available for the [anti-whaling efforts] in Antarctica, for example, we have four other captains who can take on that. And we’ve got a campaign this summer in the South Pacific to protect sharks and that’s on schedule. It’s inconvenient, but the show goes on.
Q: Speaking of that, what does this mean for the TV show?
A: Oh, we don’t start filming until next December. The new series of Whale Wars premiers next week, but it’s all in the can.
Q: I guess if you look on the sunny side, your incarceration is good publicity.
A: Yeah, I’m sure it’s good for publicity. I always try to take the unexpected things and make them work for me. And if fact this is working very well for us. We’re getting more exposure on the issue of shark finning than ever before. This is more important than just me. The issue is what we’re trying to focus on. So this is playing very well.