Fighting for animal liberation and an end to speciesism
First Week of Animal Protection Repression Trial
It was what the whole NGO scene prayed would never happen: The first
day of the trial against 13 animal rights campaigners on suspicion of
belonging to a criminal organisation
Despite no evidence linking the five VGT employees to any criminal offence and despite public outcry and demands for the Minister of Justice to stop this case coming to court, the trial opened at 9.30 am on 2nd March.
The “evidence” against the five VGT employees is organising and taking part in demonstrations, distributing leaflets and other fully legal NGO campaign work.
Otherwise only opinions expressed in internet debates in the last 2 decades are
the primary evidence. Section 278a of the Austrian Criminal Code is being used to
argue that these activities, although legal, have influenced other unknown persons to
commit offences and therefore those doing legal work are to be made responsible
for the actions of people totally unknown to them.
Protests outside the court – Prosecutor ridiculed
Protests began outside the courts well before the case was opened. Around 100 people gathered with balloons, music, vegan food, banners and animal rights literature. Media were present from all major national TV and radio stations.
The judge presiding over the case, Sonja Arleth, opened the trial at 9.30 a.m. establishing the defendants details and requesting that the court not be used to express political statements. The state prosecutor Wolfgang Handler then proceeded to give an 80 minute account of the charges during which chants of “Liar, liar” could plainly be heard inside the court room from the protesters outside. In addition balloons with “smash section 278a” written on them were floated up outside the court room windows.
The prosecutor recited a list of offences carried out with an animal rights motive dating back over the last 40 years and mostly occurring in the UK. This culminated with a description of the SHAC campaign as having a deliberate double strategy of legal and illegal actions. He went on to say that the defendants have had contact with perpetrators from the UK and that in Austria the criminal organisation was born out of the animal rights movement in the late 80s and was made up of at least 10 persons with the aim of fighting for animal rights using illegal direct action.
He detailed how the criminal organisation is supposedly structured with the VGT office as its headquarters with a hierarchical command system using encrypted emails and anonymous mobile phones to orchestrate international campaigns such as the fur campaign against C&A, P&C, Escada and later in Austria against Kleider Bauer. Liberations of pigs and chickens were carried out as part of egg and meat campaigns. Put simply, every illegal action carried out with an animal rights motive is attributed to the criminal organisation.
All defendants are charged with 278a but seven are in addition charged with the following:
The defendants' lawyers make their statements
After a lunch break the defendants' lawyers made their statements. Most of them mocked the state prosecutor for presenting such a weak case and they corrected many of the points he had made such as his listing of offences which have long since been dropped from the charge sheet because they are no longer considered by police to be offences, such as a case of arson which was actually the fault of a hunter incorrectly installing an oven. Another example being the over exaggerated value put on damaged property.
The lawyers agreed that the extensive surveillance of the defendants is ideal testament to and proof of their innocence. They made the point that the prosecution is unable to clarify when a person is to be deemed a member of the criminal organisation, does holding an opinion leave one open to prosecution? The one-sided investigation by the prosecution was also criticised by the lawyers, one claimed that 30 motions to take evidence had been ignored by the prosecution, the arrests and remand custody contravened human rights laws and the defendants had been denied access to prosecution files. In addition, the negative results of surveillance operations have been omitted from the final reports, in other words, the prosecution has ignored exonerating evidence.
Another of the lawyers made the case that encrypting electronic data is completely legitimate, he also pointed to the fact that numerous commentators, including the head of the police special commission himself, have stated that ALF style actions are not carried out in a systematic organised way and as such can't be attributed to an “organisation”. A further point was that organised crime's single objective is financial gain and that in the case of the defendants this is obviously not the intention, and further still, the prosecution has failed to present any evidence that can be compared to a Mafia like structure.
The prosecution's own argument that the supposed criminal organisation uses a double strategy of organised crime on one hand and legitimate campaigns on the other was used by the defence lawyers against the prosecution. They argued that it is a double strategy of the prosecution to make a historical list of illegal animal rights activities and attempt to hang them all on 13 individuals by making indirect links between their legitimate work and criminal offences.
Top news story
The first day of the trial was featured in news headlines on TV and in the papers. The reports were extensive and openly questioned the validity of the use of 278a.
Second day in court – Questioning of Dr Martin Balluch
On the second and third day in court the first defendant Dr Martin Balluch was questioned. Outside protesters gathered once more, one protester had dressed himself up as the prosecutor Wolfgang Handler complete with a mask with a long “liar” nose and a plastic gun, as he is a hunter. A sign on his back read “We have to get animal welfare off the streets”. Again, press swarmed the court and were asked to leave as the judge opened the case.
Accidental fires are not arson
Dr Balluch first spoke about the supposed criminal organisation. The prosecution had listed a series of offences in order to create a false impression that such offences are a serious problem in Austria due to their serious nature and high occurrence. As a matter of fact 99% of the 1500 “actions” in the anti-fur campaign against P&C listed by the prosecution were completely legal demonstrations and from the offences practically all were carried out in Germany or Holland. Similarly with the cases of arson where almost all were either not arson, but rather fires caused by accident, or cases of fires where an animal rights motive was attributed only years later, after the formation of the special commission. Even though these cases were not classified as arson originally, they now appear as such in the prosecution files. In the 25 years that the criminal organisation is claimed to have existed there have been 4 cases of arson; one in 1996, two in May 2000 and one in 2002. In other words, there has been no cases of arson by the “criminal organisation” in the last eight years.
Animal rights motivated crime drops
Balluch quoted from official documents that practically no animal rights motivated crimes were committed in 2005. And in 2007, the year that the special commission was formed, such offences were 50% less than in the previous year, 2006. Where there was a significant increase at that time however, was in legal activities. It can be concluded that the offences were carried out by lone operators rather than centrally planned in a Mafia like structure.
The offences against Kleider Bauer detailed by the prosecution are untypical in two aspects: Firstly there has never been so many offences occurring during a particular campaign and secondly, these offences all happened during 12 months of a 3 ½ year campaign. This also suggests the work of lone operators. In contrast to the alleged crimes of this supposed criminal organisation there have been 35 times more cases of reported animal cruelty crimes than crimes committed against animal abuse. Balluch went on to detail multiple brutal criminal attacks on animal rights protesters carried out by hunters, farmers, circus workers or by paid thugs. These crimes are never taken seriously.
Commenting on the alleged double strategy Balluch noted that there was no evidence of a double strategy being the case and that, on the contrary, many successful campaigns had been carried out without incidence of any criminal offences. Balluch further undermined the concept of a double strategy quoting Article 7 of the European Convention on Human Rights which states that what constitutes an illegal act must be so clearly stated in the law books that citizens of a country are able to find out what is a criminal offence and what is not. But one can read section 278a of the Austrian Criminal Code as often as one wants, and it would never become clear that organising an animal rights conference for example, as stated in the charge sheets, is to be considered a crime. If this is the case, anyone can be brought to court. After a recent publication of an article about himself and the trial, Balluch received a death threat. “Surely this is a case of the journalist in question using a double strategy?” argued Balluch.
Work colleagues and sworn enemies
A central allegation from the prosecution is that the 13 accused work together closely to carry out the aims of the criminal organisation. Dr Balluch stated that the 5 VGT employees unsurprisingly do have regular contact to each other and that there is also contact between the also charged Four Paws employee who in turn has had no involvement in the Kleider Bauer campaign. The also charged director of the Austrian Vegan Society has only occasional involvement in VGT work and the rest of those charged are involved with different groups where there is no contact between many of the 13 because the groups have a long history of distancing themselves from each other.
Throughout the morning the judge appeared irritated and constantly interrupted Balluch. On many occasions Balluch's lawyer stepped in to remind the judge that Balluch had the right to answer in full.
E-mails and animal liberation
Now the judge turned her attention to the content of emails and contact to persons known to have committed animal rights related offences. Asked what he thought about the liberating of a dolphin by an English activist, Balluch commented that it was illegal but that it was also great that it happened. There was loud applause at this from the public. Commenting on the apparent radical content of emails projected on the court room wall by the judge, Balluch said that he writes around 5000 emails a year and many of these mails were written a long time ago and he simply can't remember them. In addition, all of the emails are taken out of context. Put back in their context, as Balluch proceeded to do with a number of examples, the content could be understood as the opposite to radical. Apart from this, many email discussions can be hypothetical and people often tend to exaggerate opinions in order to illustrate a point.
At this point in the proceedings the judge showed obvious disinterest in the defendant's answers and was clearly not listening to him. This was proven to be the case when Balluch ended a statement with the utterance “Be Bo Bing, the judge ain't listening”. There was silence in the court until the judge looked up and asked Balluch why he didn't continue. At this there was loud laughter throughout the court.
Fur farm research
After the lunch break Balluch's questioning was resumed. The judge seemed more relaxed and less hectic. She wanted to know about the filming Balluch had done of fur farms in Scandinavia. The prosecution states that Balluch was collecting data to support the criminal organisation. Balluch explained the necessity of documenting the condition on fur farms. He showed the judge a film from a fur farm. She appeared distressed at what she saw and asked in detail how the animals are treated.
The judge went on to ask about the prosecution's accusation that Balluch allowed VGT equipment to be used by the criminal organisation. Balluch explained that VGT equipment such as mobile phones and two-way radios are used for actions involving civil disobedience and investigations and nothing more.
Media reports immediately appeared with headlines such as “animal liberation – illegal but super!” and “Be Bo Bing – the judge ain't listening”.
Third day in court
On the following day Dr Balluch's questioning continued. The prosecutor Handler informed the court that during the night of 2nd March, the first day of the trial, 3 windows had been smashed of a Kleider Bauer shop in Vienna. Asked by the judge what he thought about the smashed windows, Balluch commented that it proves his innocence as, until today, the prosecution had claimed that the absence of any such crimes since the investigations became known had underlined the guilt of the accused.
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