The raids commenced at 7am when police wearing balaclavas, including members of the National Domestic Extremism Team (NDET), raided two houses. At one address masked police scaled the walls and broke windows, instead of knocking on the door, to gain entry. At the other, 20-30 police burst in brandishing fire extinguishers. From these two raids four people were arrested and later charged with conspiracy to cause criminal damage. The arresting officer was DC Mace, of the NDET London, and the accusations relate to several minor acts of criminal damage in the south of England, claimed by anonymous animal rights activists.
In the aftermath of the arrests last week, the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) rapidly published a press release on their website naming the four and stating that they had been arrested in relation to animal rights 'extremism'. Their press strategy proved relatively ineffective as the story was only picked up by four or five local papers. Crucially, however, all the stories included the phrase 'animal rights extremism'. In fact, the terms 'animal rights extremism' and 'domestic extremism' have no basis in law but are artificial definitions coined by the police to delegitimise particular types of dissent.
NDET and NETCU are police units focussed on targeting, and limiting support for, direct action campaigns involved in effective dissent. NETCU goes to great lengths to explain that it is not acting to stifle 'lawful protest', however NETCU's political policing directly targets those involved in overt, public campaigning. Last Tuesday's raids involved officers from Cheshire, West Mercia and Surrey Police forces with Hampshire and Kent Police also involved in issuing warrants. This massive police operation was spurred by an act of 'lawful protest'.
The protest that has been used as a justification for the raids and the arrests occurred on 14th October 2008 when two activists hung a banner from a motorway overpass near Novartis subsidiary, Ciba Vision’s premises at Hedge End, near Southampton. The banner-drop was in protest against Novartis' involvement in vivisection; Novartis is a customer of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), Europe's biggest animal testing laboratory. Although the protestors had committed no illegal act and neither was arrested, their details, including their address, were taken for a possible court summons. A few days later, police raided their house on the pretext that the paint on their banner was red and black, colours apparently favoured by activists who had daubed slogans on walls during actions against companies working with HLS. Both were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to cause criminal damage and conspiracy to blackmail. (For further details of this arrest see SchNEWS 652).
The grounds for the arrests were tenuous in the extreme and highly unlikely to result in conviction. However, in making them NETCU achieved one objective; the harassment of active animal rights rights campaigners. This harassment had two aims – intimidation of potential new activists and criminalisation of persistent campaigners. Hitting activists with spurious charges such as these allows the police to place activists on bail and potentially monitor and restrict their movements. NDET knew that they wanted to prosecute these two campaigners for something, they just weren't sure what for yet.
From the raid on the activists' house the police took a great deal of property and during the search an item was taken that would later be used as justification for the arrests. Months passed and their house was raided on yet another occasion. The campaigners were still on police bail without charge over a year after the first raid when, on Tuesday 10th November 2009, NDET broke down their door and arrested them for conspiracy to cause criminal damage. The grounds for these arrests were that the item seized was similar to one used in a number of direct actions, although the police admit that the chances that is connected are less than one in a thousand.
Two more people who happened to live in the same house where the item was found were also arrested. Incredibly, considering the flimsy evidence, the police attempted to remand them in prison. They were, however, released on bail by a judge at Portsmouth Magistrates Court. All four of those arrested were charged with conspiracy to cause criminal damage, two of them are due to appear at Portsmouth Magistrates Court on Wednesday 18th November.
For more Information see:
NETCU Watch - http://netcu.wordpress.com/
FIT Watch press release about the raids - http://fitwatch.blogspot.com/2009/11/controversial-domestic-extremist-units.html
Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) - www.shac.net/