Flashback: 1 May 2007: Operation Achilles – SHAC under attack

This photo accompanied the Guardian's report on Operation Achilles along with the caption: "An arrested man is led away in Hampshire. The raids were the culmination of a two year operation."

On this day exactly 10 years ago, a massive police operation codenamed Operation Achilles was launched at dawn against campaigners trying to close down Huntingdon Life Sciences, Europe’s largest contract testing laboratory where tens of thousands of animals are routinely tortured to death to develop new products.

The National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, (NETCU), a police organisation set up three years ealier to target “domestic extremists”, especially the animal rights movement, issued rolling briefings and press releases during the course of the day. The Guardian reported NETCU as saying: “Greg Avery, who runs Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), was among 30 alleged extremists seized from their homes at dawn in a police operation.”

Over 700 police were involved in probably the largest series of raids ever undertaken against a protest group. Those arrested ranged across England from London and Surrey to Lancashire and Yorkshire and addresses in Wales, Belgium and Holland were also raided .

One of NETCU’s press releases said police had recovered documents, mobile phones, computer equipment and “cash totalling around £100,000”. Adrian Leppard, Assistant Chief Constable of Hampshire police, said the arrests “were the culmination of a two-year operation involving Hampshire, Kent, Surrey and Thames Valley police forces”. HLS itself had been involved too.

Freshfields Animal Rescue Centre was one of the addresses raided and Dave Callender who worked there said: “They turned up at 5am and seized three members of staff from their beds…They took another two who arrived at work at 6.20am. We have had no access to the property since and we have been unable to feed our animals or clean them out…None of the staff has been placed under arrest.”

In context: SHAC had been set up in November 1999 by Greg Avery, his wife Heather Nicholson and Natasha Dellemagne. Greg and Heather had organised successful campaigns to close down Consort beagles and Hillgrove cat farm and the group’s first newsletter predicted HLS would be finished within three years.

SHAC targeted the economic infrastructure the company needed to survive. After obtaining a list of HLS shareholders and passing it toThe Sunday Telegraph, the Labour Party sold its 75,000 shares in January 2001. As a result the share price sank to just 1p.

Later that month HLS almost went bankrupt when an £11m loan from RBS was due to be repaid. Only the last minute intervention of Lord Sainsbury, minister of science and a leading Labour donor, brokered a new loan from Stephens Inc., an Arkansas-based investment firm.

By 2003 HLS had survived beyond the three years predicted but was still in a perilous state.  The company had lost its place on the London Stock Exchange and moved its HQ to the United States, incorporating as Life Sciences Research. It had also lost dozens of customers, the Bank of England provided its banking facilities and the government had to underwrite it for insurance purposes.

The following year NETCU was formed to co-ordinate a national response to what was dubbed “animal rights extremism” along with another unit called the National Domestic Extremism Team. NDET was set up primarily to investigate SHAC through Operation Forton, which involved five police forces: Sussex, Hampshire, Surrey, Kent and Thames Valley.

At the same time harsh new laws were introduced against anti-vivisectionists. The response of SHAC was one of defiance and denial. In its May 2005 newsletter it said: “Animal liberation will not be won by faint hearts and what ifs…the only question is are you up for it.” An article on the new laws concluded it would be “business as usual.”

A third unit targeting SHAC was the National Public Order Intelligence Unit. It deployed undercover police officers, one of whom – Adrian Radford – became a prominent figure in the group. He left in January 2007, only four months before the raids.

What happened next: Immediately afterwards the group was thrown into chaos and the website left unchanged for days. When it was updated no mention was made of the raids and instead there were oblique references to “business as usual”.

Of those arrested 15 were charged with conspiracy to blackmail, an offence carrying a maximum sentence of 14 years. The first trial took place began at Winchester Crown Court in October 2008 but prior to that Greg, Natasha and Daniel Amos decided to plead guilty because they “could not hope for a fair trial” as the government “had a political will to find them guilty of something”.

According to Corporate Watch’s pamphlet State crackdown on anti-corporate dissent: the animal rights movement, “this meant that it was accepted that blackmail had occurred, although the other five defendants denied conspiracy. The trial, therefore, was about how much the remaining defendants could be linked to this ‘blackmail’.”

In Dececember 2008 seven of the defendants were convicted and received sentences of up to 11 years. The judge also imposed indefinite anti-social behaviour orders on Greg, Natasha and Heather, to prevent them from protesting against animal experiments for the rest of their lives!

In October 2010 Sarah Whitehead, Nicole Vosper and Thomas Harris pleaded guilty to conspiracy to blackmail while Jason Mullan and Nicola Tapping assented to breaching section 145 of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005. They were all jailed for between six years and fifteen months.

During this time SHAC continued campaigning but only with increasing difficulty. Debbie Vincent, now the group’s organiser, became engulfed in labyrinthine court cases contesting injunctions taken out by companies who used HLS.

In Europe, however, direct action intensified. In August 2009 a group called Militant Forces Against HLS burnt down a hunting lodge belonging to Daniel Vasella, the chief executive of Novartis – one of HLS’ leading clients –  desecrated his parents’ grave and stole an urn containing his mother’s ashes.

In July 2012 Debbie was arrested along with two activists living in Amsterdam, Natasha Simpkins and Sven van Hasselt. Debbie was charged with conspiracy to blackmail and part of the evidence used against her were the actions against Novartis in Switzerland as well as others against HLS’ customers in France, Belgium and Germany.

Just before Debbie’s trial was due to start at Winchester Crown Court in 2014, the prosecution revealed that an undercover police officer from NPOIU had posed as a Novartis executive called “James Adams” at meetings held between the company and Debbie and another SHAC activist Max Gastone in 2010.

Debbie was convicted in April 2014 and sentenced to six years. In August that year SHAC announced on its website that the group would be no more:

With the onslaught of government repression against animal rights activists in the UK, it’s time to reassess our methods, obstacles and opponent’s weaknesses, to build up our solidarity network for activists and to start healing the affects of repression.

Although we’re announcing the closure of the SHAC campaign, it will always be an important part of our history and a reminder of the ingenuity and power of the animal rights movement. SHAC will continue to inspire activists around the world to join the struggle against animal testing and take on those who profit from abuse and exploitation.

It’s our knowledge and ability to develop and focus our tactics in the most effective ways, which will continue to make us a threat to the animal exploitation industries. With the fires of liberation and justice burning in our hearts, we look to the future.

Natasha and Sven were extradited to the UK in January 2017 and are due to be tried for conspiracy to blackmail sometime next year. http://www.freesvenandnatasha.org

Further reading:

https://corporatewatch.org/publications/2013/state-crackdown-anti-corporate-dissent-animal-rights-movement

https://corporatewatch.org/news/2014/apr/17/if-you-dont-fight-youve-already-lost

Final statement from SHAC https://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2014/10/518436.html

https://network23.org/redblackgreen/2014/08/29/the-end-of-shac-and-what-we-can-learn-from-it/

https://network23.org/redblackgreen/2015/01/20/flashback-20-january-2001-hls-saved-from-the-brink/

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for posting this article. The day before, April 30th, I visited Debbie, recently ‘released’ on licence in Reading. She is as strong and compassionate as ever, more concerned for the welfare of others at the Approved Premises where she is hostelled and the large number of homeless people in and around Reading. She is maintaining her innocence of the politically motivated charges against her. Despite having to sign in 4 times she is walking the Kennet & Avon canal, visiting bluebell woods and (having mended 2 bikes at the hostel) cycling along the nearby River Thames.

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