May 21, 2009 : NETCU: Seriously Organised?

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The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) have suffered a major blow in a hard-fought attempt to throw the book at four campaigners facing charges under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA). The prosecution, involving numerous experts, several police forces and, according to one source, up to a million pounds in legal costs, was part of NETCU's ongoing attack on the animal rights movement and criminalisation of activists linked to the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty Campaign (SHAC). During the prosecution, it has become apparent that the police, terrified that the anti-vivisection movement might claim a success, have intervened to prop up a rabbit breeder on the verge of closing down.

On 13th October 2008, four people were arrested after their car was stopped in Lincolnshire. CCTV footage later showed that they had been on the property of the Highgate rabbit farm in Normanby-by-Spital, Lincolnshire. The Highgate farm breeds animals for sale to Intervet and to Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), Europe's largest animal testing establishment. This is where NETCU comes in.

Replacing the Animal Rights National Index (ARNI), NETCU was essentially set up to protect corporations from increasingly effective animal rights campaigns such as SHAC. NETCU monitors the policing of animal rights activists and other political movements; follows prosecutions through the courts and cultivates informants. Targeting animal rights campaigners with increasingly repressive new legislation in a series of show trials against the SHAC campaign and Stop Sequani Animal Torture (SSAT).

The four people arrested near the rabbit farm had not actually done anything save for enter the farm's property. Yet, they were later charged with 'conspiracy to commit criminal damage' and section 145 of SOCPA, 'conspiracy to interfere with the contractual relations of an animal research organisation'. The CPS alleged that the 'conspiracy' had lasted from April until October 2008. The CPS attempted to bring the long history of protest and direct action against HLS into the case and obtained statements from Brian Cass, the managing director of HLS and customer of Highgate Rabbit Farm, and Astrazeneca, one of HLS' customers.

Police desperate to keep corporations in business

On 7th January 2008, activists had broken into Highgate;129 rabbits were liberated, locks were glued, cars were trashed and up to £100,000 worth of damage was allegedly caused. The owner of the farm later said in court that, following the action, he had resolved to close down his business. He sold his stock of rabbits to HLS and was in the process of winding up operations. At this point, the farmer said, he was visited by the police "and others" and was persuaded to keep the business open.

The closing down of Highgate would have been a major victory for anti-vivisection campaigners. Highgate is one of only five known remaining breeders of animals for laboratories in the UK. During the 1990s, campaigners successfully closed Oxford University Park Farm, Regal Rabbits, Sky Commercial Rabbit Farm, Shamrock farm, Consort Beagles, Hylyne Rabbits and Hillgrove Cat Farm. Darley Oaks guinea pig farm was also closed in 2006. NETCU, dedicated to demoralising and criminalising the animal rights movement, could not allow the closure of another breeder and appears to have intervened to keep the business open. This can be seen as part of a wider effort by the state to prop up private companies that are the target of anti-corporate dissent. To this end, HLS, under siege from an international campaign to close it down, has been allowed not to file its accounts; to operate without insurance; and has been granted banking facilities with the Bank of England. Legislation such as companies' house regulations were changed to accommodate the needs of the pharmaceutical industry and new, repressive laws were penned to silence dissenters.

The police intervention to prop up the Highgate farm had little to do with the farm itself, a relatively small business that the state would normally ignore. The motivation was to prevent the pharmaceutical industry losing confidence in its ability to carry on with animal testing in the UK.

One can only guess how the police persuaded the farmer to remain in business and who the 'others' were who helped the police persuade him.

'Close down or we'll close you down'

After the raid on Highgate on 7th January 2008, police photographed graffiti on the wall of one of the rabbit pens saying “Close down or we'll close you down.” Because of this, the person charged with the break-in was questioned for 'conspiracy to blackmail', as well as 'conspiracy to cause criminal damage' and 'conspiracy to interfere with contractual relations'. The use of the 'conspiracy to blackmail' charge follows on from the conviction of seven activists, alleged to have been involved in the SHAC campaign, for the same charge in December 2008. They were sentenced to over 50 years in prison between them (see this Corporate Watch article). Police are eager to widen the interpretation of 'conspiracy to blackmail' to use against campaigners who call for the closure of a business. One man has plead not guilty to all charges and will be tried later this year.

No case to answer

In April 2008, three of the four defendants in the Highgate 'trespass' trial at Lincolnshire Crown Court pleaded guilty on the understanding that charges would be reduced to 'conspiracy to interfere with an animal research organisation'. Two of the three were remanded in custody. Vikki Waterhouse-Taylor stuck to her 'not guilty' plea and, on 27th April, was put on trial for SOCPA 145.

Prosecutor Felicity Gerry opened her case by informing the jury that many of them would have 'relied' on medicines that had been tested on animals. The CPS argument was confused; they argued that the trespass in the rabbit farm was intended to intimidate and, as such, 'disrupt contractual relations'. Gerry also claimed that the defendants were doing a recce for future actions when they were caught. The CPS, accompanied by a large team of plain clothes police officers, wheeled out soil analysts, computer experts and phone analysts, making much of any connections to the SHAC campaign they could find. Their case, however, collapsed when the farmer gave evidence. To make things more exciting, he was given a police escort to court, the public gallery was cleared, and he gave evidence from behind a screen. His evidence, however, was that no economic damage had been caused by the four defendants' visit. The prosecutor complained that she had not got the answers she wanted and she would like to recall him but the judge refused.

The defence claimed that there was no case to answer and, after a long, grudging, consideration, the judge agreed but went on to suggest that the CPS apply for an Anti-Social Behaviour Order (ASBO) against the defendants: "I am not saying this in any way to exonerate, applaud or excuse the behaviour of somebody who trespasses on another person's land, less so in camouflage in the middle of the night," the judge said. Despite the fact that she was acquitted it is still possible that Vikki Waterhouse-Taylor may be given an ASBO. The following week, the three people who had plead guilty and were on remand were released on bail. They will be sentenced on July 5th.

SOCPA fiasco

This failed prosecution will be a real setback for the UK's 'political coppers', eager to use SOCPA to break the anti-vivisection movement and criminalise those involved in public campaigns for animal rights. Since 2006, SOCPA has made it illegal to 'interfere with the contractual relations of an animal testing establishment'. Operation Tornado, where raids across the West Midlands lead to the trial of seven people for their role in the campaign against Sequani laboratories, was, on the police's terms, a failure. Sean Kirtley, who allegedly updated a website about the Sequani campaign, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison and a five year CRASBO, which is an ASBO imposed by a criminal court on conviction. The remaining six defendants were acquitted. It is questionable whether the huge sums spent on the raids and the prosecutions were justified by the conviction of only one person. Following the acquittal of Vikki Waterhouse-Taylor, despite the huge police resources expended on the trial, the police may be losing their taste for SOCPA trials. In a comment on Indymedia UK, Vikki said the reason she plead not guilty and went through with the trial was "mostly because I was/am too stubborn to listen to anyone." That stubbornness paid off.

SOCPA is one of the most repressive new laws on the statute book and a serious challenge to our freedom to voice anti-corporate dissent. The 2006 amendments to SOCPA were specifically designed to protect one industry from widespread public dissent and to criminalise public campaigners who had not done anything that most people would consider illegal. Monitoring and challenging the use of SOCPA is essential if we do not want to see the walls close in on us any further.