Activism Labeled “Blackmail,” UK Animal Activists Sentenced to 4-11 Years in Prison

by Will Potter on January 22, 2009

in Terrorism Court Cases,Terrorism Legislation

From the Times Online (UK).

From the Times Online (UK).

Seven animal rights activists in the U.K. were sentenced to up to 11 years in prison Wednesday for “conspiracy to blackmail” in their campaign to shut down the notorious animal testing laboratory Huntingdon Life Sciences.

The judge in the case called the grassroots campaign “urban terrorism” run with “almost military precision.”

The UK prosecution is quite similar to charges brought against seven animal rights activists in the United States, dubbed the SHAC 7. The US activists were sentenced to between one and six years for conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, conspiracy to stalk, stalking and conspiracy to harass using a telecommunications device. Their cases were recently argued before an appeals courts in Philadelphia (here’s a closer look at the hearing).

In both sets of cases, the government linked the defendants to a controversial campaign website that published all news related to the movement to shut down HLS, both legal and illegal. Neither the U.S. nor the U.K. government argued that the defendants committed the illegal acts in the news accounts published on their websites, but that, through their vocal support for those tactics and publication of communiqués, they “conspired” to do so.

The U.S. and U.K. governments argued that, by publishing the addresses, email addresses and phone numbers of corporations tied to HLS, and executives with those corporations, that the defendants were part of a conspiracy (in the U.S., the conspiracy was to commit “terrorism” and “stalk,” in the UK it was a conspiracy to “blackmail.”)

That distinction–between underground activists, and aboveground activists who vocally support them–has been entirely lost on the mainstream press. Breaking a window is not the same as writing about breaking a window, or posting someone else’s account of their window breaking. I’d hope that reporters, of all people, would be able to understand this distinction.

Yet the BBC report makes claims like, “They also sent hoax bomb parcels and made threatening telephone calls to firms telling them to cut links with HLS.” It’s never noted that the defendants were never accused of doing that: they were acts by other activists, outside of SHAC, who supported the mission of the campaign. Even worse, The Guardian recklessly claims that the activists were “considered key figures in the Animal Liberation Front.”

I’ve written at length on this site on the U.S. SHAC 7 case, and want to take a closer look at the U.K. case. Particularly, the fact that these activists, who have been demonized in the press from day one as “terrorists,” were convicted of “conspiracy to blackmail.”

First, setting aside the “conspiracy,” element, let’s look at that term, “blackmail.” To most people, it means making threats (usually threatening to reveal embarrassing or criminal information) in order to get something in return. For instance: blackmailing a CEO that you’ll send the press photos of his debaucherous weekend in Miami unless he pays you ten thousand dollars. Check out this legal definition from West’s Encyclopedia of American Law:

The crime involving a threat for purposes of compelling a person to do an act against his or her will, or for purposes of taking the person’s money or property.

These animal activists weren’t trying to take anyone’s money or property. They were, however, saying that unless HLS stopped these business practices, the activists would do everything they could to shut them down. And unless these corporations that did business with HLS cut their ties, the activists would target them as well.

Unlike other cases that most people would consider “blackmail,” with these activists, the money didn’t matter. All that mattered was the animals.

Calling a political case like this “blackmail” is like, to use a U.S. example, calling the lunch counter civil disobedience of the civil rights movement “blackmail.” The threat of that movement was explicit: continue discriminating against black people, and we’ll continue disrupting your business. Stop discriminating, and we’ll stop protesting. Hasn’t every social movement operated at that basic level of “blackmail”?

Second, even if you disagree with that quick-and-dirty explanation, these activists aren’t even convicted of “blackmail.” They’re convicted of conspiracy to blackmail. Conspiracy charges have been used throughout history against social movements when nothing else sticks. Those kinds of cases have been brought against antiwar activists, civil rights activists, environmental activists and many, many others with the sole purpose of silencing dissent. Conspiracy charges aren’t about bringing criminals to justice, they’re about singling out people perceived as “leaders” in order to set an example and instill fear.

This case, and its U.S. counterpart, are precedent-setting power grabs. They should be a wakeup call for activists in all social movements. If running a controversial website and vocally supporting illegal conduct, through words not actions, can lead to 11 years in prison, what’s next? The National Extremist Coordination Unit, the agency in the UK set up to crack down on activist “terrorists,” is already setting its sights on environmentalists. These government and corporate tactics are fluid. They can flow between countries and between movements. And they’re becoming more and more brazen.

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