On Tuesday 2 July activist Sarah Whitehead appeared at Winchester Crown Court. Sarah was part of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) , a group which campaigned to close down notorious vivisection company Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS). It was so effective that HLS almost went bankrupt in January 2001 and thereafter had to be propped up the government.
In May 2007 massive raids by 700 police officers codenamed Operation Achilles led to the arrests of over 30 campaigners. Sarah, from West Sussex, was a defendant in the second trial in October 2010 and received the longest sentence, six years. In addition she was given a 10 year anti-social behaviour order (ASBO) which forbade her from taking part in campaigns against vivisection.
ASBOs were introduced by New Labour as a way to restrict behaviour such as drunkenness and vandalism by using civil orders rather than criminal sanctions. They were meant to prohibit someone returning to a certain area or restricting public behaviour such as swearing or drinking alcohol.
When drafted, no-one knew they would one day be used as a tool of political repression but from 2005 onwards that’s exactly what happened. The criminal justice system resorted to them in a desperate attempt to curb animal rights protests.
Heather Nicholson, co-founder of SHAC, received a five-year order banning her from going within 500 metres of a number of animal laboratories. it also prevented her from contacting the owners, shareholders or employees of any certain companies. Heather was later jailed for four months for breaching her order.
In 2008 Heather and six other SHAC activists were convicted of conspiracy to blackmail HLS. On top of their lengthy sentences, four (Heather, Gavin Medd-Hall, Greg and Natasha Avery) were given indefinite ASBOs forbidding them from campaigning against vivisection ever again. Gavin’s lifetime ASBO was later overturned by the court of appeal and limited to five years.
Sarah rejoined animal rights in Brighton when her sentence was over and went on regular protests against greyhound racing there. Earlier this year, after realising she couldn’t attend World Day for Animals in Laboratories in Oxford due to her ASBO, she decided to apply to the courts to have it rescinded.
Sarah’s case had to be heard before the judge who sentenced her in 2009 and at Winchester court again. Even the barristers were the same as in her original trial. The Crown Prosecution Service objected to lifting the ASBO and used evidence from a local police officer who went to the greyhound demonstrations to claim she was a “serious animal rights activist intent on violence”.
No evidence was produced to substantiate the claim yet the police called for the ASBO to be broadened to include all animal rights protests! In fact it was Sarah who had been the victim of violence when a block of cement was thrown through her car window while she was driving past the entrance to the stadium. Two megaphones were smashed and banners stolen as well during the protests. Rather than arrest the perpetrators of these crimes, the police were hell bent on keeping Sarah away.
The lengths they were prepared to go to were highlighted in court when their barrister claimed Sarah would “groom young vegans to violence”. At her original trial in 2010 much was made of Sarah’s age – she was much older than the other defendants – and they were said to call her “mumsy”. This time, however, the judge could see through the CPS’ lies and he laughed when Sarah countered that no-one would listen to a word she said.
The state’s subterfuge backfired and the judge remarked that Sarah reminded him of his protesting days while at university. He quickly rebuked the police’s request to have her ASBO extended and then he went even further by amending it so it would no longer cover animal experiments in general. Instead it will only apply to HLS (or Envigo as they are now called) and certain companies associated with them.
Afterwards outside the court Sarah said she was “really happy and keen to get back involved in fighting for laboratory animals”. Congratulations to her for fighting back against repression.
Too often in the past the state has got away with portraying animal rights activists as “domestic extremists” hell bent on causing violence and mayhem. But as Sarah’s case shows these people are far more likely to be victims themselves and only want to stand up for abused animals, whether in laboratories, greyhound racing or any other walk of life.