On 9 May 2006 a series of dawn raids which took place at nine homes in Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, the West Midlands and Gloucestershire led to the arrest of 12 activists over a 48 hour period. This massive police operation, dubbed “Tornado”, was coordinated by the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit (NETCU) and was given up-to-the minute coverage on the news section of its website.
Those detained were from Stop Sequani Animal Torture (SSAT) and their names were Sean Kirtley, Pauline Burgess, Mary England, Gemma Astbury, Robin Wardle, Rosemary Golding, David Griffiths, Rylma White, Kevin White, Wendy Clark, Joseph McCabe and Joanne Goodyear.
The arrests were made under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) 2005, which made it an offence to “interfere with the contractural relations of an animal research organisation” or to “intimidate” its employees. One of those consulted during the drafting of this piece of legislation was the CEO of Sequani Ltd in Ledbury, a well known contract testing laboratory where companies paid for products to be tested on animals. Sequani had been the focus of anti-vivisection campaigns for years.
One of those arrested, 63 year old Wendy Clark, said: “Our home was invaded by 13 police officers from West Mercia CID….When [my husband] contacted Worcester police station to ascertain my welfare, he was told I was old enough to look after myself and to mind his own business. Between the time of my arrest and release on bail – approximately 10 hours – I was neither offered nor given anything to eat. This I understand is an infringement of the rules governing individuals being held in custody.”
Sean Kirtley said: “The door on my house had been so violently battered that there was only two shards of wood hanging from the remaining hinges. Police arrested me and spent nine hours searching the premises while my partner remained in the house, not pleasant at all. A megaphone, banners, thousands of leaflets, mobile phones, computer, digital camera, clothes, letters, discs were all seized as evidence of my involvement in the campaign against Sequani animal testing lab in Herefordshire.”
In context: By the early noughties, anti-vivisectionists were on a roll. Consort beagle breeder and cat breeder Hillgrove Farm had closed down, followed by Shamrock Farm primate importers and Regal Rabbits within weeks of each other in 2000.
At the same time SHAC had brought Huntingdon Life Sciences to its knees and construction of a new laboratory in Oxford was halted due to the Speak campaign. This bandwagon effect was proving highly effective and the state knew it. Brian Gunn, former Cambridgeshire Chief Constable, said:
“If HLS was brought down by animal rights extremists, they would merely move on to another organisation. The domino effect this would have on the pharmaceutical industry, the biochemical industry, its customers, its financial stakeholders, etc, would be a matter of serious concern for the government in terms of economic stability.”
When Newchurch guinea pig farm was finished off in 2005, a national newspaper reported that activists from that group would be joining SSAT. The state knew it had to forestall this growing campaign if it was to counter the movement’s momentum.
NETCU had been founded by New Labour in May 2004 due to lobbying by companies affected by animal rights protests. Its aim was to undermine campaigns “through partisan use of the media and support for groups presenting counter-arguments to the dissenters NETCU is targeting.” Their website had links to pro-vivisection organisations such as the Research Defence Society and Pro-test and boasted of people being prevented from doing street collections and leafleting.
What happened next: The first Sequani trial did not begin until January 2008 when seven people appeared at Coventry Crown Court. By that time, the mood had shifted markedly with the rounding up of of SHAC activists in May 2007 and the arrest of Mel Broughton, spokesperson for Speak in November of the same year.
The trial was to last 18 weeks – the longest in the animal rights movement’s history – and from the start the state used any dirty trick it could to get convictions. The judge, a bloodsports enthusiast, immediately banned press coverage, arguing it was needed to avoid the jury being prejudiced in the second trial (which never went ahead in the end). He also insisted the jurors were bussed to and from court each day and the jury arrived and departed from a side entrance. This was calculated to give the impression the defendants were dangerous and the jury had to be protected from them.
According to Corporate Watch (CW),“what the defendants were accused of amounted to nothing more than a public, legal protest campaign. Nothing the average person would perceive as illegal occurred. No acts of direct action were relied on by the prosecution and no physical damage had been done to Sequani or any other company (except for one window broken by accident).”
Instead the act of organising demonstrations was portrayed as somehow illegal and an “expert analyst” purported to show from the defendants’ mobile phone records that they had been organising protests. The prosecution also claimed to identify a “hierarchy” in SSAT with Sean Kirtley at the top due to him updating the group’s website and his emails, phone calls and texts.
Despite his innocence, Sean was convicted and received 4 ½ years. This was described by CW as: “One of the worst injustices in the recent history of the UK’s political prosecutions.” It hardly got mentioned in the press, however, and organisations such as Amnesty and Liberty expressed no interest in the case. The left-liberal establishment had bought into NETCU’s propaganda and smears and believed protesters were now mere criminals.
However, five of the other defendants were acquitted (the sixth accepted a plea bargain) and the verdict was a vindication for the right to protest. Wendy Clark said: “It nearly killed me but I was innocent, so I stood my ground.” Sean Kirtley appealed against his sentenced and he was released in September 2009, 16 months into his sentence. In a personal message on his support website, he said: “The final nail that was hammered into the prosecutions ‘argument’ was when they could not name anybody that I was supposed to have conspired with, so my conviction was quashed there and then.”
That there was only one conviction led to the dropping of charges against the remaining defendants. Those on trial were largely united and defiant in the face of a gruelling ordeal and despite the carrot of plea-bargains. What’s more the campaign itself continued and there are still protests outside Sequani – the latest was in April to coincide with World Day for Animals in Laboratories. The website has not been updated for several years but there is a Facebook page called Stop Sequani Torturing Animals.
State crackdown on anti-corporate dissent: the animal rights movement by Corporate Watch (2009). https://corporatewatch.org/publications/2013/state-crackdown-anti-corporate-dissent-animal-rights-movement
Indymedia UK archive on the Sequani campaign http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/actions/2008/sequani/