Friday, December 26, 2008

The End of SHAC (by the Times)

In the nine years since the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) campaign began, millions of people have walked past its stalls on Britain’s high streets. Paraded before a nation of animal lovers, the posters depicting haunted creatures in global research laboratories helped to bring around £1 million in donations to SHAC’s collection buckets and bank account.

One stall in Oxford Street could make £500 in a single day, and many thousands of ordinary members of the public signed the petition to close down Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), thinking that they were doing their bit to stop animal research taking place in its Cambridgeshire laboratory.

Many of those signatures did not reach Downing Street, or anywhere else. Boxes of petition sheets were found in May last year by police who raided the cottage at Little Moorcote, Hampshire, from where SHAC was run with “almost military precision”.

Almost £100,000 in cash was also found across 29 addresses that were searched at the end of a two-year police investigation costing millions of pounds. Other funds had been spent on co-ordinating an international blackmail campaign against hundreds of victims, some with only the most tangential connection to HLS. They paid, indirectly, for SHAC’s targets to receive hoax bombs, threats that they would be stabbed with HIV-infected needles and receive “home visits” from balaclava-wearing vandals.

There were two faces to SHAC, which was created in 1999 by Gregg Avery, his first wife Heather Nicholson and Natasha Dallemagne, later Avery, his second wife. The campaign, which remains active and is not an illegal organisation, grew rapidly and internationally. At one stage its bank account had a turnover of about £150,000 a year, while the British mailing list topped 10,000, the vast majority of whom simply had a concern for animal rights and took part in nothing more than legal protest.

Pulling the strings was Gregg Avery, a veteran activist with animal rights related convictions. Having run campaigns to close down a beagle kennels and a cat farm that supplied vivisection facilities, he had a bigger target by 1999. HLS, which had been the subject of an undercover Channel 4 documentary, was it.

As they bugged conversations inside Little Moorcote, police heard Nicholson describe their campaign as “a straightforward battle between good and evil, it’s like Heaven and Hell . . . black and white, simple as that”.

“There is a scale of hatred. How I feel goes off the scale,” she told fellow conspirator Daniel Amos, referring to those who worked inside HLS. “I could kill every last one of them and I wouldn’t think anything of it.”

Gregg Avery knew that HLS directors and staff would be prepared to suffer for their livelihoods: they were used to abuse and attack. But the company’s financial and physical supply chains — its banks, customers and contractors – could be its Achilles’ heel. The couriers, scaffolders and bakeries for whom the laboratory was only one contract out of many would be, he concluded, less likely to take a stand when their families were threatened and neighbours began hearing anonymous allegations of paedophilia.

He was right. Under a barrage of threats and blackmail – the almost inevitable consequence of being listed on SHAC’s website as an HLS “collaborator” – one company after the next bowed to the order to e-mail promising to sever all ties. More than 270 businesses, from local firms to multinationals, are listed on the SHAC “roll of honour” of “companies who have dumped HLS”.

HLS contractors and suppliers abroad were not safe. There were trips to Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Germany and elsewhere, where SHAC’s British hierarchy would meet local activists to stage menacing protests and clandestine home visits.

“People say, ‘I’m not letting these bastards push me around’ and three weeks later they pull out,” as one former SHAC target told The Times. “In the end barely anyone got physically attacked . . . but it is the psychological impact, the thought that this could be more.”

Spreadsheets recovered from the conspirators’ computers recorded the names and whereabouts of targets as well as details about their children and security arrangements.

Potential victims were painstakingly researched, a process in which Gavin Medd-Hall, a middle-aged former computer technician from Croydon, often took the lead. The hounding of these targets was also carefully logged – in public usually through “action reports” that appeared on extremist websites. In private, using an e-mail encryption programme that they thought had bought them secrecy, Avery and his core group compiled detailed three-monthly reports of their legal protests and illegal blackmail campaign.

The former were carefully labelled SHAC, a well-known brand in the animal rights movement that was adopted by activists around the world. The latter always took the badge of the “animal rights militia” or Animal Liberation Front (ALF).

Although the SHAC inner circle always denied any connection to the latter, an anonymous newsletter entitled “Animal Abusers Index” found at the Averys’ address painted a different picture. “HLS will not close by us saying aren’t the ALF wonderful when they are no different from every single one of you,” it read. “You are the ALF.” This, prosecutors believe, pointed to the truth: the ALF has no formal membership card, but key figures in the SHAC leadership were at the heart of its activities.

The balaclavas, spray paint and burnt-out remains of a mobile phone discovered during police raids suggested the same thing.

The Averys, veterans of this world, groomed idealistic young activists such as Daniel Wadham and Gerrah Selby to be its next generation. This group didn’t normally write the poison-pen letters and send the hoax bombs themselves – there were others willing to do that – but they researched, fundraised and publicised.

They sensed victory as HLS’s share price collapsed and the company left the London Stock Exchange for New York. Even now, although the company’s finances are sounder than they once were, HLS banks through the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform because its custom is not welcome elsewhere.

By 2005, however, there was a growing mood that the animal rights movement – legal and otherwise – had been getting its own way for too long. The University of Cambridge had pulled out of building a research facility, and construction at Oxford’s laboratory was on hold after the contractor withdrew.

The British police began an operation which involved five forces and the National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, the City of London Economic Crime Unit and the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

In June 2006 Gregg Avery told an interviewer that SHAC had not done anything illegal since 2000, when he and his wife were given 12-month jail terms for publicising HLS employees’ addresses on the internet. The hounding of HLS contractors since was the work of other unconnected groups, such as the ALF, he said.

“Our phones are tapped, our cars have tracking devices on them, our e-mails are read. Believe me, if we were involved in anything illegal the police would be the first to know,” Avery said. A year later, as 700 police officers swooped on addresses across Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands, he would be proved right.

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