Sea Shepherd founder and President Paul Watson, who was arrested May 13 on an outstanding warrant stemming from a 2002 incident in Guatemalan waters, could bypass extradition to the Central American country by voluntarily traveling to Costa Rica to face charges of attempted shipwrecking, Costa Rican officials announced Tuesday.
Watson, 61, was held for one week in a German prison before being released to house arrest on Monday. He said he fears for his safety if extradited to Costa Rica and transferred to a general population prison.
The arrest of the conservationist and star of Animal Planet’s “Whale Wars” on charges stemming from a confrontation a decade ago with a Costa Rican fishing vessel – caught on video allegedly poaching sharks – has brought international attention to the small country of Costa Rica, which promotes itself as an ecotourism destination. Global protests against Watson’s arrest are planned for Wednesday morning, the biggest to be held in Berlin, where Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla will meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
On Wednesday, Chinchilla said Watson would have a fair trial in Costa Rica. “If Paul Watson is extradited to Costa Rica he will have legal proceedings that strictly keep to constitutional principles and the international standards which have to be applied in this type of case,” she said.
Chinchilla, speaking at a press conference with German President Joachim Gauck, stressed that her country had a “completely independent justice” system.
On Monday, Costa Rican Environment Minister René Castro and interim Foreign Minister Carlos Roverssi – filling in for Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo, who is traveling in Europe with the president – met with local environmental groups, including the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (Pretoma) and Alex Cornelissen, director of Sea Shepherd’s operations in the Galapagos Islands.
“Captain Alex Cornelissen of Sea Shepherd contacted us via Costa Rican nongovernmental organizations including Pretoma to discuss … the offer that Capt. Watson could come voluntarily to the country to restart joint programs between Sea Shepherd and the Costa Rican government that were suspended a decade ago,” Castro said Tuesday. “The idea is to cooperate in the creation of international biological corridors, as [Sea Shepherd] has a permanent presence in the Galapagos Islands, which is the closest location to [Costa Rica’s] Cocos Island.”
The 2002 incident in which Watson was arrested and released by Costa Rican authorities, happened just two days before Sea Shepherd was to sign an agreement with the Costa Rican government to protect Cocos Island, a national park some 365 miles west of the Pacific port of Puntarenas. Following the high-seas incident, the Costa Rican government scrapped the agreement and Watson left the country, establishing a base at Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, where the group continues working to prevent poaching.
Following the confrontation, Costa Rican fishermen accused the captain and his crew of attempted murder. Charges were filed and dropped twice at the time, Watson told The Tico Times on Tuesday.
In June 2006, Costa Rican authorities issued an international arrest warrant for Watson, a Canadian national, accusing him of being a fugitive after he missed a court date that month. However, Watson said he was never informed of the court date and is innocent of the charges.
“We were on our way down [to Costa Rica] in 2002 … [and] as we were passing through Guatemalan waters, we came across a Costa Rican vessel that was shark finning in Guatemalan waters. Now, Costa Rica is saying we took the law into our own hands. We didn’t,” Watson said. The incident was captured in the film “Sharkwater,” by marine biologist and filmmaker Rob Stewart.
In October 2011, Costa Rican tribunals issued an extradition request for the Sea Shepherd founder. However, on March 2, Interpol issued a statement to its 190 member countries that said the agency would not issue a “red alert” – a notification that a person is wanted by another country – in the Watson case because Costa Rica’s request did not meet guidelines established by Interpol’s statute.
Since Watson’s arrest, Costa Rican officials have released several statements saying there has been no political influence in the case, and the Executive Branch cannot interfere with ongoing legal matters.
Tuesday’s announcement could be the first legal breakthrough in the matter, and could avoid a lengthy extradition process if Watson agrees to voluntarily return to Costa Rica to face charges. It could also help avoid further embarrassment for the Chinchilla administration, as the president is set to deliver a speech Wednesday in Berlin on Costa Rica’s efforts at creating a “green” democracy.
“We hope to come to an arrangement in Germany in coming hours that can stop this process that has taken such an unnecessary toll on the country,” Roverssi said. “Costa Rica has continuously demonstrated that it is a state of laws, and we have guaranteed to [Watson’s] attorneys Watson’s physical safety … so that he can present himself in the country and demonstrate his innocence or assume his responsibilities.”
AFP contributed to this story. Follow updates at ticotimes.net and look for an exclusive Tico Times interview with Capt. Watson in this Friday’s print edition.