On December 23rd, 4 out of 5 activists on trial at Winchester Crown Court were found guilty of 'Conspiracy to Blackmail' at Winchester Crown Court after a 3 and a half month long show trial. The world's media, prompted by police press officers, were quick to condemn activists by pointing to harassment against the employees of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) and their customers, shareholders and investors. Actions against HLS, not linked to those convicted, such as hoax bombs, letters alleging paedophilia, and threats were pointed to as evidence of the defendants' extremism. Police spokesmen and the National Extremist Coordination Unit (NETCU), the branch of the police set up to deal with the AR movement and other expressions of the public's dissent, hailed the convictions as a victory. (For more information on NETCU see here and here.
Corporate Watch has followed the progress of the trial at Winchester since the beginning. The reason we were concerned about the trial is that we see it as part of a larger attack on the animal rights movement motivated by the state's desire to protect private corporations against dissent. Since the animal rights movement began to effectively challenge the profits of those involved in vivisection and the pharmaceutical industry the state has repeatedly responded with new repressive measures. In May this year Sean Kirtley, an activist involved with Stop Sequani Animal Torture (SSAT), was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for updating a website with news about a legal, nonviolent campaign to close down Sequani laboratories in Ledbury. Kirtley was convicted of 'Conspiracy to interfere with the contractual relations of an animal research facility under section 145 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act' (SOCPA 145) . His only crime was to protest lawfully against the lab and to update a website.
NETCU, however, was not satisfied with seeing animal rights activists banged up for four and a half years and chose to charge campaigners associated with Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) with 'conspiracy to blackmail', an offence carrying up to 14 years in prison. In May 2007, police arrested 32 people in raids dubbed 'Operation Achilles'. Since then, 15 people have been charged with 'conspiracy' and are being tried in two separate trials, of which this was the first.
The charges relate to six years of concerted campaigning against HLS, the largest contract testing laboratory in Europe. The defendants included people who had been involved in SHAC from the outset. However, two of the defendants, Gerrah Selby and Dan Wadham, had been in their early teens at the beginning of the period concerned and had only been involved for a short time. Wadham was only 17 when his part of the alleged conspiracy allegedly occurred.
SHAC, an international campaign group calling for the closure of HLS, has been painted by the police and the press as a 'criminal organisation' duping members of the public concerned with animal abuse into donating their money to further 'a campaign of blackmail'. SHAC's activities, however, have been overwhelmingly lawful: the campaign publishes information about animal abuse inside HLS labs, reports campaigning activities and issues action alerts calling on supporters to write polite letters to companies working with HLS and ask them to desist. If those companies continue to do business with HLS, protests would usually follow. All material on the SHAC website is checked by a barrister and police are given prior notice of their demonstrations.
Customers, suppliers and shareholders in HLS have also been the subject of some direct action. Slogans have been daubed at company premises and employees homes; cars have been painstrippered; hoax bombs have been sent and employees have been accused of being paedophiles. However, these actions are not directly linked to the SHAC campaign and have only tenuous links to the defendants, whose faces were spashed across many tabloid front pages after their convictions at Winchester.
During the summer, three defendants, committed campaigners against HLS, plead guilty to charges of 'conspiracy to blackmail'. During the trial, evidence recovered from the campaign PCs and activists' personal computers was presented. Police had found many documents believed to have been permanently deleted or shredded by their authors. This included a spreadsheet detailing names and addresses of people working for companies linked to HLS, details of direct actions carried out against them and a document containing a private chat between activists apparently talking about direct action. This evidence may suggest that some activists had decided to take direct action against companies linked to HLS, but the evidence linking the defendants found guilty on 23rd December to these documents was circumstantial and, in some cases, non-existent. Even if some activists linked to SHAC did decide to take direct action, this does not make everybody associated with the campaign guilty by association. The prosecution case was that that the entire SHAC campaign was aimed at closing down HLS, which is true, and that SHAC campaigners attempted to persuade companies not to work with HLS, which is also true. The prosecution argument, however, went on to imply that, when companies did not agree to cease trading with HLS, they were the subject of direct action. Often direct action did occur but this was not under the banner of SHAC. Moreover, SHAC did not publish any information about companies that was not already in the public domain. But because some activists, sometimes under the banner of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), did take direct action, the prosecution argued that the SHAC campaign was facilitating direct action and giving it its tacit appoval. The police went one step further and said SHAC and the ALF were one and the same thing!
Much of the evidence in the three-month trial was in relation to lawful demonstrations against companies linked to HLS. This was particularly important in the instances of defendants who could not be linked to the uncovered computer evidence. In several cases, the only evidence was what they had said at demonstrations. Comments made by defendants during protests in earshot of the police were portrayed as linking them to the 'conspiracy'. Comments, such as "we know where you live", were taken as proof that defendants were party to the conspiracy. In any other context, such spur-of-the-moment comments would have, at most, lead to minor charges in the Magistrate's Court. Equally important was the fact that some of those convicted were linked personally to the defendants who pleaded guilty. Heather Nicholson and Gerrah Selby had both shared houses with them. This was obviously a factor in finding them guilty by association.
So what does this mean for free speech and anti-corporate dissent in the UK? By the same logic, an anti-war campaign that publishes information on the whereabouts of a military base or arms factory and calls for its closure could be put in the frame for the same crime if that base was then the subject of an arson attack. All it would take would be for the police to imply that the people running the public campaign are linked to those involved in direct action. Consequently, campaigners might feel compelled to publicly distance themselves from acts of direct action lest they find that, unbeknown to them, those responsible for the covert actions are involved in public action too and the whole movement is charged with 'conspiracy'. In fact, the use of such charges is a classic police tactic aimed at spreading paranoia and convicting as many activists as possible for acts carried out by only a few. The aim is also to minimise public support for illegal actions by harrassing and criminalising those who speak up in solidarity.
NETCU have already intimated, for example in the recent Mark Townsend article on 'eco-terrorists', that environmental or anti-gm protesters might be their next target.
The convicted activists are now long periods in jail, they will be sentenced on January 19th. Heather Nicholson, who was remanded after her arrest in May 2007, has already spent over 19 months in jail, longer than some convicted of serious assaults or sex crimes would spend in prison. In May this year, Sean Kirtley, who was imprisoned for his role in another animal rights campaign, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison on the same day that men who beat a man until he was blind received two years. Since 'Operation Achilles', the police have been patting themselves on the back for putting the animal rights movement into 'disarray'. A NETCU source told the Observer in November 2008 that the animal rights movement's 'ringleaders' had 'either been prosecuted or were awaiting prosecution.' One may suspect that comments like these are more to do with maintaining NETCU's funding than reality (see this Corporate Watch commentary for more details).
In fact the attack on animal rights campaigners does not seem to have limited their capacity to take action. Regular demonstrations are still taking place against companies linked to HLS, with one planned for 29th December.The ALF, which does not seem to be in need of 'leaders', has recently freed 70 turkeys from a UK farm. If anything, the global animal rights movement seems to be growing steadily.
The decision to try these campaigners for 'conspiracy to blackmail' was evidently a political one. Huge amounts of police resources have been poured into this prosecution, and others like it, at the behest of the Labour government. This is due to the effectiveness of the animal rights movement in confronting and challenging the power of corporations involved in animal abuse. The demonisation of animal rights campaigners in the media, facilitated by NETCU press releases, only makes it easier for the state to repress them without public outcry. The conviction of the defendants at Winchester is yet another nail in the coffin of the public's right to voice their anger and dissent against corporate crime.
For more info see Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty - www.shac.net
NETCU Watch - http://netcu.wordpress.com/
SCHnews - www.schnews.org.uk