October 16, 2009 : Sean Kirtley freed after Sixteen months in prison
Animal rights activist Sean Kirtley, who had been caught up in the UK's war against anti-corporate dissent, has been released after 16 months in prison. As reported by Corporate Watch over the last year, he had been convicted under Section 145 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA 145), a new law designed to control the burgeoning animal rights movement. SOCPA 145 makes it illegal to "interfere with the contractual relations" of an animal testing organisation. The legislation was drafted to combat the increasingly effective tactic of targeting the network of companies buying or selling goods or services to companies involved in the vivisection industry.
On 17th September, the Court of Appeal quashed Sean's conviction on the grounds that he could not have been involved in a conspiracy because all of his co-defendants had been acquitted, that is, there was no one with whom he could have conspired. The trial judge, a keen supporter of bloodsports, had misdirected the jury in such a way that they would not have been aware that they could not legally convict Kirtley.
Prior to SOCPA 145 being brought onto the statute book, several corporations were consulted about how the government could legislate to protect them from public dissent. The CEO of Sequani laboratories in Ledbury, Herefordshire, was one of those consulted. During Kirtley's trial, it emerged that Sequani's CEO had been invited to meet with the Home Office in London prior to the drafting of the act. There was no suggestion, however, that the government had attempted to consult the public on the matter of the new law.
Preparing the ground
For 25 years demonstrations had been taking place at Sequani laboratories in Ledbury against the testing of drugs and medical devices on animals. By 2006, a new campaign against suppliers of Sequani had been launched and 19 companies had pulled out of dealing with the company in the wake of protests across the West Midlands. Following the introduction of SOCPA, police from different forces around the country began to turn up to Sequani demonstrations in increasing numbers. Several defendants in the subsequent trial spoke of a close relationship between these police officers and Sequani employees and management often they were seen to drink tea and make jokes with the company staff and bosses.
For six months, the police filmed the protesters' every move (the prosecution submitted dozens of DVDs in evidence against the defendants). Officers from the Met and their Forward Intelligence Teams (FIT), Staffordshire Police, West Mercia Police and the Environmental Protest Unit, now the Public Order Protest Unit, a specialist police department set up during the campaign against Darley Oaks farm to deal with targeted animal rights campaigns were, all part of this operation. The whole affair was overseen by the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU), which enthused unashamedly on its website after Sean was convicted (for more on NETCU, see this Corporate Watch article and Netcu Watch).
During those six months, police obtained the names and addresses of the people attending protests by monitoring what vehicles were parked near protests, manufacturing minor public order and driving offences and using Section 50 of the Police Reform Act to request details. Section 50 is another new piece of legislation which gives police the power to arrest people for not giving their name and address if they are suspected of committing anti-social behaviour. Helpfully, NETCU's handbook on public order policing, often seen tucked into the pockets of protest police, gives a step-by-step guide to using this legislation against protesters.
The protests that were the subject of the trial consisted of a Halloween demonstration, at which protesters dressed up as witches and vampires; noise demos outside the premises of companies doing business with Sequani and regular pickets at the Sequani premises, at which demonstrators would shout their disgust at the workers leaving the lab. During some of the protests, a recurring fax was also sent to the targeted business blocking fax and phonelines.
Sean and several others were arrested at their homes during a police operation, dubbed Tornado. Twelve people were charged with 'conspiracy to interfere with the contractual relations of an animal testing organisation' in relation to a number of demonstrations against Sequani. Sean's co-defendants were acquitted, but Sean was found guilty after the prosecution claimed he was the 'organiser' of the campaign against Sequani. The prosecution pointed to telephone network analysis which they said showed that Sean had telephoned other defendants about (lawful) demonstrations. They also alleged that he was the webmaster of the Stop Sequani Animal Torture (SSAT) website. The case was examined in detail in Corporate Watch's Newsletter issue 43.
Much of the evidence related to abusive language being used on demonstrations. However, the hours and hours of footage did not show Sean swearing once, although a police witness was adamant that he did. The prosecution also argued that, because Sean had heard other people swearing at the demonstrations and had not distanced himself from them by leaving the protest, he must have been in agreement with their actions. This argument, essentially guilt by association, is increasingly being used, notably at the 2008 trial of the SHAC 7 (see here and here). They also repeatedly played a video clip of Sean peacefully crossing the road outside Sequani, arguing that he was obstructing the cars of staff trying to leave.
Thus, the prosecution claimed Sean was the leader of the campaign against Sequani, despite the defendants' explaining that they did not believe in hierarchy and that no one told anyone else what to do.
After his release Sean told Corporate Watch the trial "was like a pantomime; it seemed very, very wrong. It shouldn't have been happening."
Sean had been sentenced to four and a half years in prison, essentially for his involvement in lawful demonstrations and for updating a website that was being regularly checked by solicitors before anything was posted on it. His conviction was one of the most worrying developments in the current state crackdown on anti-corporate dissent and the animal rights movement. The idea that SOCPA 145 could outlaw otherwise lawful anti-corporate campaigning potentially has serious ramifications for people's ability to expose and challenge corporate power.
Despite the police's attempts to repress it, the campaign against Sequani is still going strong. After the trial, demonstrators, incensed at the state's attempts at stifling dissent, flocked to Sequani. In December 2008, hundreds of activists converged on Sequani at a 'Carnival Against Vivisection'. Regular demonstrations have been held, often up to twice a week, and the campaign is planning another Halloween demonstration in the coming weeks.
Litany of SOCPA failures
Sean's successful appeal was just one of many failed attempts at prosecutions under SOCPA. Sean's co-defendant, who pleaded guilty to avoid prison, has had one of his SOCPA convictions overturned. Earlier this year, the SOCPA trial of Vikki Waterhouse-Taylor, another animal rights campaigner, also collapsed (see this Corporate Watch article for more details).
These SOCPA failures also mirror the frustrated attempts to prosecute protesters who have taken part in unauthorised demonstrations outside the parliament. Public anger, and media outcry, at sections 132-138 of SOCPA have lead to parliament announcing that parts of the legislation will be repealed and the Metropolitan Police appear not to have made arrests under the legislation for some time.