Debbie Vincent, an animal rights activist from the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign was sentenced to six years in prison for conspiracy to blackmail after a five week long trial at Winchester Crown Court. She was also given an Anti Social Behaviour Order which means she can be arrested if she protests against or contacts Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) or its business partners for a further five years after her release from prison.
Today Debbie Vincent, an animal rights activist from the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign was sentenced to six years in prison for conspiracy to blackmail after a five week long trial at Winchester Crown Court. She was also given an Anti Social Behaviour Order which means she can be arrested if she protests against or contacts Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) or its business partners for a further five years after her release from prison.
The sentence should serve as a wake up call to anti-capitalists of the need to offer solidarity to those who have been singled out for repression because of their involvement in effective resistance to corporate power.
A press release from the Blackmail 3 support campaign quotes Debbie: “I have been made an example of because I put myself up as a public face of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty and for believing that such places as Huntingdon Life Sciences should be resigned to the history books.” “In some ways I’m really not surprised I was found guilty, as I don’t believe anyone can get justice when faced with a political conspiracy charge and the huge resources of the state and multinationals against me. I will always have hope and will always continue to try my best to make the inhabitants of this planet more compassionate to all and try to make the world a better place for all.”
What we are seeing is a coordinated campaign against animal rights activists in an effort to silence dissent,” said Adrian Shaw of the Blackmail 3 Support Campaign. “This is the third conspiracy to blackmail trial in the UK involving people accused of campaigning against Huntingdon Life Sciences.”
Corporate Watch spoke to Debbie prior to the sentencing. She said: “What is scary in this world is oppression and injustice, when people hurt people, animals and nature. What is beautiful in this world is resistance, when people say ‘enough is enough’ and act. Oppression and injustice are everywhere, but so is resistance. Because some people know that if you fight you might lose, but if you don’t fight, you’ve already lost.”
SHAC was set up in 1999 with the aim of closing down Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS). HLS is one of the largest contract testing companies in the world. They keep about 70,000 animals on site at their lab in Huntingdon. According to SHAC, “HLS will test anything for anybody. They carry out experiments which involve poisoning animals with household products, pesticides, drugs, herbicides, food colourings and additives, sweeteners and genetically modified organisms. Every three minutes an animal dies inside Huntingdon totalling 500 innocent lives every single day.”
SHAC’s tactics have been groundbreaking for direct action campaigns in their targeting of the network of companies with business relationships with HLS: from its customers to its service providers and from its suppliers to its investors. To read an analysis of the SHAC model of campaignining click here.
Over the years SHAC has published details of the companies doing business with HLS on its website and has encouraged people to persuade these companies to cease their business with HLS. The SHAC website is clear that it is not encouraging people to break the law. SHAC contacts the companies and tells them that they will remain listed on its website until they cease doing business with HLS. Hundreds of companies have ceased trading with HLS. View a list here.
HLS have been infiltrated and their practices exposed several times. To read undercover exposes of animal abuse at HLS click here.
The arrests of the ‘Blackmail 3’
In June 2012 European arrest warrants were issued in the UK for two activists in Holland, who will be referred to as SH and NS in this article.
On 6th July 2012 Debbie Vincent, who had been targeted by the police for many years for her involvement in the SHAC campaign, was arrested and detained on suspicion of conspiracy to blackmail. Her home address was searched. On the same day SH and NS were arrested and premises in Amsterdam were searched. Debbie was charged in July 2012 with conspiracy to blackmail, an offence under the 1977 Criminal Law Act. The British police have sought the extradition of the Dutch activists and the Dutch courts granted it. However, until now there is an ongoing dispute over the extradition as the lawyers for one of the Dutch defendants have demanded an undertaking from the British Secretary of State that he would serve his sentence in Holland if he was convicted.
The charge placed by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) against Debbie was conspiring with 16 named people, including the two Dutch activists, and unnamed others “to blackmail representatives of companies and businesses and other persons” “by making unwarranted demands, namely to cease lawful trading with HLS, with menaces and with intent to cause loss to another.” The 13 other ‘co-conspirators’ have already been jailed for conspiracy to blackmail, at trials in 2009 and 2010 for a total of almost 70 years between them. For many of them the only evidence presented was involvement in lawful campaigning against the company and association with those involved in direct action. The use of the charge of blackmail against Debbie is another example of the twisting of the law to repress grassroots dissent against powerful corporations.
The events relied on in Debbie’s case were that in 2008 and 2009 actions were carried out in France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland against Novartis, EuroNext, Schering Plough, BDO, AstraZeneca, Fortress and Nomura, all companies with business relationships with HLS. The actions included setting fire to directors’ cars, company buildings and, in one case, the holiday hunting lodge of Daniel Vasella, Director of Novartis. Graffiti was daubed on directors’ homes overnight and the ashes of Vasella’s mother were stolen from the family tomb. However, in the words of Michael Bowes QC, the prosecutor in the case: “There is no evidence that Ms Vincent was present at the scene of any of the attacks, or incidents in Europe. There is no evidence that she was outside of the United Kingdom at the time of any of these attacks”. Instead the Crown Prosecution ‘Service’ (CPS) claimed that Debbie was guilty of involvement in a ‘conspiracy to blackmail’ involving those actions.
The CPS claimed that there was evidence linking SH and NS to some of these actions. However they were not the ones in the dock. The prosecution argued that Debbie had been in phone contact with SH and NS and had attended the 2009 Animal Rights gathering in Oslo that they also attended.
But the case went much further than that. The CPS argued that the SHAC campaign itself, in publishing details of companies on their website and encouraging people to protest against them, was guilty of blackmail. The effects of this legal ‘logic’ have broad implications for anti-corporate activists. For example, during the movement against apartheid in South Africa activists published details of companies like Barclays Bank and encouraged people to protest against them until they pulled out of South Africa. Was this an act of blackmail? Do campaign groups who publish the names and addresses of companies involved in fracking and encourage people to protest against them run the risk of convictions for blackmail?
Is activist security a crime?
The CPS’s case summary says that “Debbie Vincent has taken steps to conceal her criminality by the use of encrypted computers (she has failed to provide the encryption codes despite being known to have been using a totally encrypted computer shortly before it was seized). Encrypted storage media was found hidden behind the kickboard of kitchen units at her address”. In highlighting this, the prosecutors were implying to the jury that Debbie had something to hide. The implication that the taking of lawful steps to protect privacy in the context of a concerted police campaign to monitor, criminalise, arrest and imprison activists seems laughable. However, it is a well rehearsed argument in animal rights cases.
The prosecution had evidence that Debbie had contacted the directors of Novartis after the direct action against the company had taken place. However, they had no evidence linking Debbie to the direct action itself apart from the circumstantial links to NS and SH. In order to try and strengthen their case, the police worked with Novartis to try to entrap Debbie and another SHAC activist (who was also arrested but had his charges dropped, he will be referred to in this article as ‘X’) into admitting links to the robbing of the Vasella grave.
SHAC had emailed Novartis, requesting that they cease dealing with HLS. Andrew Jackson, Global Head of Corporate Security at Novartis, replied and requested a meeting with the campaign. Jackson said that this meeting would be to discuss the issues raised in the email from the campaign. Debbie and the other activist arranged to meet representatives of Novartis at the Le Meridien Hotel in Piccadilly on 10th March 2010. Unknown to them, the company had arranged with the police to bug the meeting, and one of the people they were due to meet was an undercover officer, using the alias ‘James Adams’, who was masquerading as a Special Contracts Manager for Novartis. The activists were swept for bugs at the beginning of the meeting and each time they went to the toilet. They were told that the meetings were strictly confidential. After the meeting Adams got in touch with SHAC again and said that “certain things are outside the parameters of the dialogue” and asked Debbie and ‘X’ to set up another meeting, encouraging them to communicate with him via PGP email encryption. ‘Adams’ was eager to communicate directly with Debbie and ‘X’ rather than through the campaign. The clear intention was to coax the activists into offering to secure the return of the Vasella remains.
Throughout the discussions in the meetings with Novartis, Debbie was clear that SHAC had no idea who took the remains and had no control over them. ‘Adams’, the undercover officer, took the lead during the conversations with Debbie. According to Debbie, he asked “leading questions about whether we were the right people” to talk to. Debbie’s notes of the conversation record her as saying: “We’re taking a risk the way the legal system is in this country to meet with you… [X] and I are painfully aware that going to these meeting with Novartis puts us in the spotlight, puts us at risk…” A representative of Novartis then says: “This is a confidential process…” In a later email to the company, Debbie said that she had spoken to some of the activists conducting demonstrations against Novartis and confirmed that they had agreed to stop protesting should Novartis end its contract with HLS.
Soon after the second meeting with Novartis Debbie met ‘James Adams’ on the underground, as if by chance. In fact he had followed her onto the train. He tried to broach the issue of the Vasella remains again but Debbie refused to discuss the issue.
Targeting of activists by political police units
The arrest and prosecution of Debbie, and cases against animal rights activists more generally, are overseen by specialised political police units designed to protect corporations from public anger. In 1999 the National Public Order Intelligence Unit (NPOIU) was set up following the publication of a Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabularies report, which claimed that some protest groups “have adopted a strategic, long-term approach to their protests, employing new and innovative tactics to frustrate authorities and achieve their objectives”. The NPOIU has been responsible for planting undercover officers in protest movements.
Debbie regards the use of undercover officers against her as a “sting operation”. She said she believed that Adams was “clearly part of National Domestic Extremism and Disorder Intelligence Unit”, formerly the National Domestic Extremism Unit, “who are just a re-branding of the Special Demonstration Squad and National Public Order Intelligence Unit” and that “there is now a 25 year history of unaccountable practice by a secretive and unaccountable police unit”.
Specialised political police units aim to criminalise and imprison activists and neutralise political movements that pose a challenge to corporate power or other aspects of the current system.
‘Decapitating’ the ‘leaders’
The strategy of the police units involved in overseeing Debbie’s case is explored in the January 2013 edition of the European Journal of Criminology. It includes an article by John Donovan and Richard Timothy Coupe. Donovan is employed by the Metropolitan Police ‘Service’. The article encapsulates the police and CPS’s approach to the SHAC campaign as one of “leadership decapitation”: “Police agencies combating terrorist or organised crime groups principally employ intelligence-led activities (Innes et al., 2005) and covert investigative techniques for identifying group participants and linking them to criminal activities. These involve human surveillance, informants and under-cover officers, as well as covert, electronic techniques, including wire-tapping, to monitor incriminating communications and understand member roles and ties in criminal networks, such as the Neapolitan Camorra (Campana, 2011; Campana and Varese, 2012). As well as the arrest of members of terrorist groups who commit or plan crimes, leaders and upper echelons have been specifically targeted in order to ‘decapitate’ and weaken or terminate groups (Cronin, 2009; David, 2002; Jordan, 2009; Price, 2012), an approach still emphasised in counter-insurgency doctrine (Hauenstein, 2011). This was the approach adopted by UK police in seeking to disrupt and terminate SHAC’s campaign of intimidation.”
The CPS’s case summary claimed that Debbie was the representative of SHAC in the UK. Alistair Nisbet, the Senior Crown Prosecutor in the case, said: “Following the conviction of SHAC’s main leaders in 2008, Debbie Vincent’s role within the organisation grew. She became the public face of SHAC”. Of course, the police’s notions of leaders within the SHAC campaign betray a fundamental lack of understanding of horizontal organising by protest movements. Nevertheless, this tactic of painting individuals as leaders and targeting them is the strategy behind the police efforts to railroad Debbie and other activists to prison; an organised attempt by the police to neutralise a political protest movement through the twisting of the law to imprison those who the authorities label as ‘leaders’.
So why aren’t more people rallying to support Debbie and other SHAC campaigners? One reason is the police’s attempts to discredit the movement in the media and thus to limit public solidarity for those under their cosh. In the past, mainstream media scare-stories about animal rights and environmental campaigners have been found to have been fabricated by political police units – see here. During Debbie’s case the media coverage was deeply offensive, defamatory and discriminatory, focusing on the fact that Debbie had undergone gender reassignment. The Mirror’s headline was “The boy who grew up to become a woman of terror” while the Daily Mail ran with “Sex-change soldier who became an animal rights terror commander” and made the unsubstantiated claim that Debbie had “been attacking animal testing labs for over ten years”. Debbie has already made a successful claim to the Press Complaints Commission and forced the Mail to amend an article which erroneously linked her to the Animal Liberation Front and linked SHAC to a previous blackmail case against the Save the Newchurch Guinea Pigs campaign. This defamation in the press is undoubtedly stirred up by police press releases, aimed at generating a negative image of animal rights campaigners in the media in order to limit public support for the movement. It is of utmost importance that anti-corporate campaigners are not taken in by this spin, which is designed to protect corporate profits, and to stand in solidarity with those experiencing repression.
Protecting corporations from dissent
Pharmaceutical companies that are facing public anger over their activities have seized on Debbie’s conviction to further restrict protest outside their premises. After the verdict in the trial, Novartis applied for a strengthened injunction under the Protection from Harassment Act (PHA) of 1997 against animal rights protesters. It was granted on 14 April 2014. The harsh terms of the injunction were requested, by notorious corporate lawyer Timothy Lawson Cruttenden, on the grounds that there could be a “backlash that occurs after the sentence”.
The PHA Act was drafted and made its way through parliament as a provision designed to protect vulnerable people from harassment. Before the law was passed, the media had been evoking emotional accounts of the effect of stalking and the need to protect vulnerable individuals. The Act was never portrayed as a law designed to protect corporations and restrict protest. Yet, that’s exactly what its being used for.
The new conditions put in place by Novartis are an interim measure and will be examined at another court hearing. The interim injunction has been made against ‘persons unknown’ but potentially affects anyone demonstrating against Novartis. It restricts demonstrations to six people or fewer, in designated protest zones, with no amplified sounds, and forbids face-coverings or blood-splattered costumes. Anyone deemed to have breached the conditions can be arrested and may face up to five years in prison. However, last year a test case at the Old Bailey of two SHAC activists put into question the practicality of prosecuting activists arrested under PHA injunctions. See this Corporate Watch article for details of the case.
Debbie’s conviction is part of an ongoing campaign of repression against the UK animal rights movement. A further seven SHAC activists have been charged with ‘conspiracy to interfere with the contractual relations so as to harm an animal research organisation’ under Section 145 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (2005). The charges relate to demonstrations against companies with business relationships with HLS. They are due to appear in court later this year.
When we asked Debbie if she would need any particular support from people if she got a custodial sentence, she replied: “Practically, I’m not sure what my needs will be in prison, it will depend to a degree to where I go. I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to cope, but being isolated from nature and friends will be the worst part. I will try to make the best of the bad situation, it’s all a bit daunting and new. The whole charge and court case are still amazingly surreal.”
“Keep on campaigning against all oppression and capitalist domination. Don’t be afraid to speak out and never apologise for trying to make a difference and caring.”
To see a list of imprisoned animal rights activists worldwide click here.
Update: We have just heard that Debbie has been taken to Bronzefield Prison. Her prisoner number should be available soon.