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Organised crime law crushes animal rights duo

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Four and a half years in jail for “conspiring to interfere with contractual obligations”. That was the sentence handed down to animal rights activist, Sean Kirtley, on Friday, in what is claimed to be the first contested trial under the Serious and Organised Crime Act 2005 (SOCA).

Kirtley was found guilty of co-ordinating the efforts of a small group dedicated to disrupting the activities of Sequani Ltd, a medical research organisation based in Herefordshire. Co-defendant David Griffiths received a 30 week jail sentence: four others were found not guilty.

According to West Mercia Constabulary, this was one of the longest trials they had ever been involved in. “Operation Tornado” at one point involved 120 officers plus other national police agencies, and is claimed by critics to have cost at least £4m.

SOCA (section 145) makes it an offence for an individual to attempt to persuade a third party not to honour their contractual obligations to an “animal research organisation”.

To be found guilty under this section, your persuasion must either involve criminal or “tortious” acts. The latter is a principle already enacted within ASBOs: if you commit a civil offence in pursuit of your goal, it is magically transformed, by law, into a criminal one.

There is one apparent let-out: simple persuasion is OK. Bear in mind, however, that harassment – a criminal offence – requires no more than two attempts to speak to an individual in circumstances that might cause them distress or alarm. If your message is that their work is immoral – the chances are that it could be harassment.

Animal rights activists also have the unique distinction of being the first to be prosecuted under harassment legislation.

So was this an appropriate use of police time and resources? Is SOCA the right way to proceed?

Animal rights activists are no strangers to extreme direct action. The recent theft of a body in order to put pressure on the owners of a guinea pig farm is witness to that.

West Mercia Constabulary accuse the defendants of “protests and demonstrations, harassment and intimidation [...], criminal damage, assault, annoying communications and letter writing campaigns”. They also “developed and managed a website”.

This is an interesting catalogue.

Political activism used to involve attempts to persuade others of the rightness of your views. Recent legislation – not least the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 - has made such simple protest far harder. It is to be hoped that the police do not believe that annoying communications, letter writing and website development deserve time in prison.

A check on the web shows that the anti-Sequani campaign has posted names and addresses of suppliers to that company, together with a suggestion that supporters write to them “politely” and ask them to withdraw their support.

Some suppliers did receive phone calls and letters. It is alleged that managers at Sequani were followed home and verbally abused outside their homes. At time of writing, no further detail has been received from Sequani Ltd or the authorities – although the former has welcomed the action taken by West Mercia Constabulary.

There is a very fine line between legitimate political protest, and intimidation.

A much larger question is why the Government feels the need to legislate so specifically in respect of animal rights activists. Or perhaps this is just the latest loophole – which will be closed in due course by making the same law apply to all protest movements. ®

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