The National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit was set up partly as a replacement for the Animal Rights National Index (ARNI). The creation of NETCU came at the same time as a realisation by the police that the small, autonomous direct actions against companies involved in vivisection in 1980s and 90s were being replaced by mass campaigns such as the campaign to shut down the Hillgrove cat breeders and, later, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC).
NETCU monitors the policing of animal rights campaigns and other political movements, often focused anti-corporate campaigns; follows prosecutions through courts and cultivates informants. One of NETCU’s most important roles, however, is the undermining of campaigns through partisan use of the media and support for groups presenting counter arguments to the dissenters NETCU is targeting. For instance, the NETCU website hosted links to the pro-vivisection Research Defense Society and articles praising PROtest. NETCU is also one of the least transparent of all UK police departments and shrug off all requests for information about the work of the unit. The political nature of NETCU’s work is illustrated by several press releases boasting of activists being prevented from doing street collections and leafletting (see, for example, ‘Animal rights campaign refused permission to hold street collections in Sunderland’ at www.netcu.org.uk/media/article.jsp?id=280).
The Sequani Six
“All effective campaigns that have tried to change the world have suffered severe repression at the hands of the state. If the state isn’t interested, then you’re not being effective.” - Sean Kirtley
An amendment to the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) in 2005 made it illegal to “interfere with the contractual relations of an animal research organisation” or to “intimidate” employees of an animal research organisation. One of the people consulted during the drafting of the act was the CEO of Sequani labs in Ledbury, Herefordshire. The labs had been the subject of protests due to their involvement in animal testing.
On 9th May 2006, coordinated dawn raids took place at various homes around the Midlands. The massive police operation, dubbed ‘Tornado’, was given up-to-the-minute coverage on the news section of the NETCU website. Computers and mobile phones were seized as well as items like a plastic witch’s nose that were later exhibited in court. Twelve people were charged under SOCPA. In the trial of the first seven defendants, in January and February 2008, the prosecution alleged that the events at 16 demonstrations against Sequani and related companies amounted to an ‘interference with the contractual relations’ of Sequani. The incidents related to words spoken (allegedly offensive), acts of trespass and the sending of a repeating fax message to block up company fax machines. All of these charges are minor and would be extremely unlikely to carry a prison sentence. However, when they form an element of a SOCPA offence, they can carry up to five years in prison.
The 18-week-long trial, subject to a media-gagging order imposed by the judge, examined reams of computer and mobile phone evidence. The prosecution produced an ‘expert analyst’ who examined the network of phone calls between the defendants and presented them as evidence that they were organising demonstrations. The very act of planning to demonstrate against Sequani was portrayed as illegal. The prosecution identified what they presented as a ‘hierarchy’ in the SSAT campaign and portrayed certain defendants, including Sean Kirtley, as the ‘leaders’. Much was made of the fact that Sean Kirtley’s computer showed that he had updated the SSAT website. SMS messages and emails downloaded to computers, through email clients like Thunderbird or Outlook, were read out in court.
What the defendants were accused of essentially amounted to nothing more than a public, legal protest campaign. Nothing the average person would perceive as illegal occurred. No acts of direct action were relied upon by the prosecution and no physical damage had been done to Sequani or any other company (except for one window broken by accident).
The trial at Coventry Crown Court took its toll on the defendants. According to Sean Kirtley, defendants suffered “mental and physical exhaustion, nightmares and disturbed sleep” as a result of the stress. Wendy Campbell told Corporate Watch, “It nearly killed me but I was innocent, so I stood my ground.”
All defendants apart from Kirtley were acquitted. The judge, a game-shooter, remanded Kirtley and later sentenced him to four and a half years imprisonment and a five-year CRASBO on release, which is an anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) imposed by a criminal court.
So let us look for a moment at the specific charges against Kirtley. He was not directly accused of using offensive language: the prosecution admitted he was mostly silent at demonstrations. Nor was he accused of sending disruptive faxes. The only charges against him were of allegedly ‘organising’ demonstrations through phone calls and emails and updating the SSAT website. The SSAT website was not offensive and did not even advertise the demonstrations at Sequani. It merely discussed animal abuse by Sequani and listed companies doing business with it. It also encouraged readers to engage, politely, with these companies and not break the law. SSAT was also a general animal rights resource with information about the fur and dairy trades and anti-foie gras campaigns.
Thus, Sean Kirtley, perhaps more than any other prisoner in the UK at the moment, is a political prisoner punished for nothing but exercising his right to freedom of expression and right to protest.
The SHAC Seven
Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) is perhaps the most ambitious and most effective anti-corporate campaign against vivisection in the world. Its aim is to close Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), Europe’s largest animal testing laboratory. In its attempts to do so, it has aimed to persuade companies to desist from investing in, supplying or providing services to HLS. This tactic recognises that corporations cannot do business in a vacuum but rely on other companies to provide a network of services to them.
In May 2007, police arrested 32 people in raids dubbed ‘Operation Achilles’. Since then, 15 people have been charged with ‘conspiracy to blackmail’ and are being tried in two separate cases, of which the trial of the ‘SHAC 7’ was the first.
The charges related to six years of campaigning against HLS, which the prosecution claimed was ‘blackmail’. Blackmail is defined as “making an unwarranted demand with menaces.” The alleged blackmail in the three and a half month long trial at Winchester Crown Court takes a little bit of creative thinking to understand. SHAC, in which all seven on trial were allegedly active, published publicly available company details of customers, investors and other companies doing business with HLS. SHAC supporters were encouraged to write to them or protest against them in the hope that they would cease trading with HLS. SHAC always added a caveat that actions should remain within the law. In fact, SHAC went to such lengths to remain within the law that Natasha Avery, one of the defendants, entered into long correspondences with the police over SHAC-related demonstrations, even praising the policing of some as even-handed.
Throughout the history of the SHAC campaign, autonomous direct actions, often under the banner of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), have taken place against HLS, secondary and tertiary companies and their employees. Cars have been paint-strippered, company property damaged and letters threatening more damage have been sent to company offices and, sometimes, to directors’ homes. Hoax bombs have been sent and, on one occasion, an incendiary device was placed at the home of a company director of a related company. These actions are not alleged to have been carried out by SHAC. However, during the trial a spreadsheet, allegedly pieced together from fragments of a document linked to a computer in the house where the SHAC office was based, was produced. The spreadsheet detailed actions against HLS, including the sending of letters accusing directors of being paedophiles and damage to cars, giving the place and the date when the actions occurred. The prosecution alleged that other documents recovered from computers provided tenuous links between some defendants and the spreadsheet.
Thus, the alleged ‘unwarranted demand’ was what SHAC had asked companies: to sever links with HLS. The supposed threat, or ‘menace’, was that of direct action carried out by others. The existence of some evidence, albeit weak, of links between some of the people on trial and direct action was an added extra for the prosecution.
A further complication was that three people had pleaded guilty. A SHAC statement said that this was because they “could not hope for a fair trial” and that the government “had a political will to find them guilty of something.” However, this effectively meant that it was accepted that blackmail had occurred, although the other five defendants denied conspiracy. The trial, therefore, was about how much the remaining defendants could be linked to this ‘blackmail’. Much of the evidence, including the aforementioned spreadsheet, could not be challenged as the defendants who pleaded guilty were not cross-examined.
Although it was technically accepted that blackmail had occurred, the prosecution never specified the exact nature of the blackmail. At its highest, the prosecution case linked most defendants to direct action through the computer evidence. However, the evidence of such a link was tenuous to non-existent. Failing that, the prosecution essentially argued that SHAC operated legally but gave tacit support to direct action. In some cases, particularly where activists had not been involved in SHAC for long and could not be painted as organisers, the prosecution argued that words they had said on demonstrations, ranging from threats to articulate speeches about the need to end vivisection, were evidence of ‘conspiracy to blackmail’. The judge even instructed the jury that simply being on demonstrations where threatening statements were uttered could be evidence of ‘conspiracy to blackmail’.
When the jury found 7 out of the 8 defendants guilty, it remained unclear which one of the prosecution’s many definitions of the charges they accepted. It may be that they were simply influenced by the media storm whipped up by NETCU press officers or the wealth of irrelevant allusions to actions not carried out by the defendants, such as the theft of the body of Gladys Hammond in the completely separate campaign against Darley Oaks Guinea pig farm. It is evident that the defendants were convicted, to a large extent, through guilt by association with the actions of others.
At the three-day-long sentencing in January 2009, Judge Butterfield sentenced the defendants according to how he saw them in the supposed hierarchy of the SHAC campaign, not according to the evidence against them. Thus, Greg and Natasha Avery were given the heaviest sentences possible but were given credit for their guilty pleas and sentenced to serve nine years each. Heather Nicholson, who plead not guilty, received the longest actual sentence, eleven years. Gavin Medd Hall was sentenced to eight years; Daniel Wadham, five years; and Daniel Amos and Gerrah Selby were each sentenced to four years.
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 takes is 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 involved in public action are responsible for the covert actions 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 a few anonymous people. The other aim is to minimise public support for ‘illegal’ actions by harassing and criminalising those who speak up in solidarity.
For more on the crackdown on animal rights activists, see: