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Anti-Vivisection and Civil Liberties - A Common Cause
By Alison Banvill
Animal rights activist Sean Kirtley is currently serving a four and a half year prison sentence after being convicted at Birmingham Crown Court in May this year. What can he have done to incur such a penalty? He must, surely, have carried out a violent act? A friend of Sean’s has pointed out that on the very same day the sons of a mother who reported her offspring to police for kicking a man until he was blinded received two years. Sean must, therefore, have done something even more reprehensible? Perhaps, at the very least, he threatened violence or used intimidation of some kind? No, Sean did none of these things. He was never accused of violence of any sort, neither verbal nor physical. There was never any question that he had conducted himself in anything other than a completely peaceful manner. Sean was found guilty under an addition to the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act (SOCPA), Section 145, and convicted of ‘conspiracy to interfere with contractual relationships so as to harm an animal research organization.’
What does this mean? What did Sean actually do that sees him languishing in a cell at this very moment? Sean’s ‘crime’ was to update a website (Stop Sequani Animal Testing) that gave out information about perfectly legal demonstrations. This deserves repeating so that we can fully digest the facts: Sean updated a website with information about gatherings that were absolutely lawful! How can it possibly be, you might ask, that a person in the UK can be jailed for years for providing details about events which are not illegal? How can such a paradox exist in our justice system? Well, thanks to SOCPA Section 145, anyone caught in the driftnet definition of ‘harm’ used in the wording can become a victim of such inconsistency, and if it clashes with that hallmark of a free society, the right to protest, then that is just rather unfortunate. But why no public outcry at this assault on our fundamental freedoms? Why no headlines demanding an explanation for the imprisonment of a man for doing no more than others who update campaigning websites do every day?
The answer lies in the combination of a number of factors, because a ludicrous and ethically questionable law such as this could only be enforced if certain elements are in place.
Firstly, it is very helpful that Sean belongs to a group the public have little sympathy for – animal rights activists. Thanks to a compliant media, ever ready to adopt the most sensational angle regardless of the truth, this lobby is seen as dangerous, violent and extremist. And anti-vivisectionists fare worst of all when the public is routinely fed the myth that experiments are a necessary evil in the race for cures for human diseases.
Never are they told that drug side effects are the western world’s fourth biggest killer; never are they made aware that pharmaceutical companies ignore the results of animal tests when their drugs fail, placing them on the market anyway; never is it revealed that if drugs pass the animal stage then go on to kill hundreds of thousands of people, as happens every year, the efficacy of the animal model is never questioned; never is it said that animal experiments are merely an insurance measure against drug companies being sued by those they damage or the families of those they kill; never is it suggested that the massive profits of the pharma-giants are what is under threat when activists speak out, along with the reputations of those who have built their careers on a foundation of sand; and never is anyone asked to account for the many, many barbaric and totally useless experiments carried out each year which have no pretence whatever to being related to the lofty ideal of curing disease, but are merely the whim of the experimenter’s own curiosity.
The second factor, as already touched upon, is that the media must be uninterested in an accurate representation of the issue at hand. Loyalty to their corporate owners and advertisers must remain paramount.
Thirdly, the public at large must be convinced of the integrity of the producers of the news they watch or read. There can be no question in their minds that what they are absorbing is anything but a full and faithful picture of events and causes.
A generous portion of apathy is then the cherry on the top of this seemingly digestible concoction. Unfortunately, like many a tasty, but nutritiously empty, food, its long-term effects are not so beneficial, and it spreads through society like an undetected or unacknowledged cancer, eating away at its vital organs: justice, humanity and morality itself.
This is not the first time SOCPA has been used to undermine civil liberties. Brian Haw, the man who has camped in Parliament Square for six years in protest, firstly, at sanctions against Iraq and then the war itself, was the sole reason Section 132 was added in 2005. This made spontaneous protest illegal within a kilometre of Parliament, but so hurried was the effort to remove Brian that those drafting it neglected to make it retroactive, ensuring he was the only man in Britain able to legally protest there without permission. This hasn’t stopped the police from removing most of his display in the dead of night – illegally as has now been established - or harassing Brian on a regular basis.
This is the world of SOCPA, an act infamous for its ability to accommodate any supplementary piece of legislation the government wishes to slip in to deal with those pesky people who value outdated notions like freedom of speech. And with Sean Kirtley’s imprisonment we have finally reached a level of corruption which, along with new and proposed terror laws, has poisoned the very principles any free society must uphold in order to claim that title.
Speaking after the 18-week Sequani trial in May, Detective Inspector Dave Williams of West Mercia Police said Kirtley was “a dedicated animal rights activist who devoted a significant part of his life to leading an organized, systematic and sustained campaign to target Sequani Ltd with the ultimate aim of closing the company down”. Absorb carefully what he is saying: it is now illegal to campaign completely peacefully against any organization the government wishes to protect. The civil rights group, Liberty, was not interested in this case. They should have been, because when a man can be convicted through such a blatant debasement of justice, when his liberty can be taken away with such contempt for any notion of integrity in law, then it is time for all who value fundamental freedoms to stir.
Originally published on Cyrano's Journal.
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