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Eugene Weekly : News : 09.14.06

SHAC Smackdown

Feds slap animal rights activists with the T-word.


Murderous Islamic fundamentalists, tree-spiking eco-punks, radical puppy lovers — they're all terrorists in Uncle Sam's eyes. The recent conspiracy convictions of six animal rights activists illustrates the extent to which the feds are using the war on terror to paralyze the anti-corporate left with the fear of guilt by association.

The SHAC defendants

In May 2004, federal agents arrested seven activists with Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), a global group that aims to shut down an animal testing company with labs in New Jersey and England. Their target, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), has a record of violating animal welfare laws and kills 500 animals a day, according to Greenpeace.

The feds charged the SHAC activists — Kevin Kjonaas, Lauren Gazzola, Jacob Conroy, Joshua Harper, Andrew Stepanian, Darius Fullmer and John McGee — with violating the never-before-tested Animal Enterprise Protection Act of 1992, a fruit of corporate lobbying that makes it a felony to smear companies that scrape profit off animals' backs. Prosecutors later dropped the charges against McGee.

Animal rights activists had done naughty things to HLS's New Jersey lab, like breaking windows and freeing caged beagles. But the feds aren't blaming those acts on the SHAC defendants; the saboteurs themselves are still underground. The SHAC seven merely acted as their aboveground supporters, organizing demonstrations, sending black faxes to clog up company machines and posting news on their website (www.shacamerica.net) in an attempt to pressure companies to stop doing business with HLS.

All of that may have been legal had the Animal Enterprise Protection Act not redefined terrorism to include physically disrupting or intentionally causing the property loss of animal testing companies. The feds argue that the SHAC activists' campaign, including the dissemination of videos showing HLS lab technicians punching beagle puppies in the face, caused some of HLS's biggest clients — like Procter & Gamble and The Bank of New York — to suspend business with the labs. That's property loss against an animal enterprise, which is now considered terrorism.

Federal prosecutor Charles McKenna noted that after the SHAC America website published HLS executives' home addresses and phone numbers, petty crimes — like the cutting-up of an executive's golf course and the partial sinking of another exec's boat — followed. "[The SHAC defendants] conspired with the people who did the actual vandalism and damage," he said. "Time and time again, when they would put that information out, bad things would happen to those people."

But SHAC supporters are furious that the campaign organizers, rather than the vandals themselves, now face years behind bars. "It seems like this case is sending a message that it's much safer to be an underground activist than an aboveground activist these days," said SHAC spokesperson Andrea Lindsay. "If you just hold signs and run a website, next thing you know you're going to prison for 10 years."

The idea that campaign organizers are responsible for whatever illegal acts underground activists do for their cause is potentially far-reaching. If that line of logic were applied across the political spectrum, the webmasters for pro-life groups could be held responsible for abortion-clinic bombings, and Republican National Committee staffers could be liable for atrocities committed by U.S. troops in Iraq. Of course, lefty activists expect the smack to land on their own asses, not the right's.

Prosecutor McKenna disputes that idea. "We don't look at the politics behind law-breaking," he said. "If you break the law, we're going to go after you whether you're on the right or the left."

The SHAC case is part of a larger federal campaign against domestic environmental and animal rights movements, dubbed the Green Scare. One arm of that effort is Operation Backfire, an FBI sting that resulted in the indictments of 14 Earth Liberation Front (ELF) activists allegedly linked with a string of eco-sabotage crimes across the West. That case, which made international headlines, is currently being heard by federal judges in Eugene.

The six SHAC defendants were convicted in March for a medley of nebulous crimes: conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, conspiracy to stalk, interstate stalking and conspiracy to harass using a telecommunications device. Their attorneys are appealing the verdicts. On Sept. 12 Kjonaas, Gazzola and Conroy received sentences ranging from four to six years and were ordered to pay $1 million in restitution to HLS and its employees. Fullmer, Harper and Stepanian will be sentenced in the next week.

Meanwhile, Congress is poised to consider the an expansion of the 1992 Animal Enterprise Protection Act. HR 4239, now in a House committee, would stiffen the penalties for conspiracy and replace the word "Protection" with "Terrorism." 

For updates on the SHAC defendants visit www.shac7.com,and to learn more about the campaign against the AETA check out www.stopaeta.org.The SHAC America website was taken offline under court orders, but the UK counterpart is still up at www.shac.net