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A federal jury has found six animal rights protestors guilty of using their website to incite attacks on the operations of animal testing company Huntingdon Life Sciences. They face jail time of up to 23 years and hefty fines.

The six were charged with violating the US' Animal Enterprise Protection Act. During the trial, held in New Jersey, defence lawyers argued the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) activists were not advocating violence on the site, despite listing names, home addresses and personal details of Huntingdon employees. However, prosecutors were able to satisfy the jury that although they could not directly prove the six had themselves participated in violence, they had celebrated it online and repeatedly claimed credit for action.

The website is no longer running. The URL now leads to a message saying: "I'm sorry the site has been shut down. You may wish to visit the UK site."

Prosecutor Charles B McKenna was also able to produce phone records showing that SHAC president Kevin Kjonaas, one of those convicted yesterday, called a man charged with bombing a California biotech lab soon after the explosion. The jury saw a protest video of group director Lauren Gazzola, also convicted yesterday, warning targets: "The police can't protect you!"

McKenna praised the decision, noting that the First Amendment does not give the right to incite violence.

SHAC was set up in the UK in 1999 with the sole aim of closing down British firm Huntingdon Life Sciences, which conducts animal experiments. Its campaign has been described as "terrorist" by the FBI. The American arm targeted the firm's New Jersey labs. Huntingdon general manager Mike Caulfield today said the verdict was: "A victory for democracy, research and patients."

The landmark case is the first prosecution under the US Animal Enterprise Protection Act, since its enaction in 1992. Science and industry lobbyists have lately called for the law to be tightened in the face of increasingly vociferous attacks.

UK lobby group the Research Defence Society director Dr Simon Festing told El Reg the verdict was "fantastic news". He feels the tide is finally turning in the battle with animal rights extremists. The society supports the Pro-Test movement, which last weekend held a demonstration supporting Oxford University's new animal testing lab.

Outside court, new SHAC USA president Pam Ferdin said the verdict was an attack on free speech and that with its founders locked up the group would now likely disband. Ferdin - a former child star and the voice of Lucy in the Peanuts cartoon series - complained: "Anyone who writes anything in an email or on a website is being treated like we're in a fascist state."

A SHAC UK spokesperson declined to comment today, citing legal concerns before the six find out their punishment. Five of the protesters are being held without bail until sentencing. ®

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