One Man’s Activist…

Arrests and Jailings of Animal Rights Protestors Draw Outrage From the Left

Animal Rights protestors

Protestors outside the Ministry of Justice | Photo: www.vgt.at

Arrested for a press release? Animal-loving individuals accused of organized crime? For a group of Austrian activists, these are more than just headlines.

May 21 saw the arrests of 10 animal rights activists throughout Austria on accusations of belonging to a criminal organization and engaging in criminal activity under Section 278a of the criminal code. Since that time, the activists have remained in police custody without being formally charged, while the police continue their investigation.

The arrests took place in the early morning in the Austrian provinces of Vienna, Salzburg, Tirol, Styria and Lower Austria, provoking ire against the police and the Austrian Ministry of the Interior for violating human rights and making arrests with insufficient evidence, among other complaints. Amnesty International, Peta and the Austrian Green Party have condemned the arrests and subsequent jail time, and multiple protests and demonstrations have been staged by supporters throughout Austria, Germany, Australia and the U.K.

“I’m really shocked that something like this could happen in Austria,” said Green Party MP Brigid Weinzinger. “The criteria have not been met for the activists to be considered a ‘criminal organization.’ If they have no evidence, they will have to release these people.”

According to the Interior Ministry, however, authorities have indeed collected evidence of crimes that point to the activists.

“Since autumn 2006, attacks and damage to facilities of the clothing, pharmaceutical and food industries as well as a major campaign of anonymous threats against managers and staff of companies of these economic sectors had become more and more frequent,” said ministry spokesman Gerhard Pichler in an e-mail. The evidence collected, he said, ties the activists to these crimes.

Among those arrested were Dr. Martin Balluch, a double-doctorate in philosophy and natural sciences and president of the Association Against Animal Factories, or VGT (Verein Gegen Tierfabriken). Balluch has been on a hunger strike and lost more than 20kg since his arrest, and was subsequently moved in mid-June to the hospital ward of the Wien Josefstadt prison to begin intravenous feeding.

“This (hunger strike) is the only opportunity available to me to protest against this unbearable unjust course of action of the state against me,” Balluch said in a statement on VGT’s Web site.

The arrested individuals are activists involved with animal rights organizations including the Austrian Vegan Society, Four Paws International, Peta and VGT.

“The district attorney’s office has obviously confused the Tierschützern with the Russian mafia,” said Green Party MP Peter Pilz at a press conference May 30.

Complaints lodged against the Interior Ministry include accusations of wiretapping, withholding information from defense attorneys and using force during the searches and arrests, as well as bias and the abuse of the activists while in prison.

A very heated issue, however, concerns the quality of the investigation’s evidence.

“There is no evidence of concrete misdeed,” Weinzinger said at the May 30 press conference. The only criminal activities that could be traced back to the activists were throwing stink bombs and tearing down circus posters in protest, she said.

According to Weinzinger, a central piece of the police’s evidence is a press release issued by the group trying to get legal aid for the activists who had been arrested.

“Imagine being arrested for a press release,” she said.

In a second example, fingerprints found at the scene of a home break-in were considered sufficient to link the crime to one of the activists.

“One fingerprint was found in a mailbox at a private home,” Weinzinger said. “It would be like having lunch at a restaurant, and then the restaurant burns down. They find your fingerprint at the crime scene, and (now) you’re the culprit.”

But Pichler said there is more to the case than suspected crime.

The authorities’ motives “are exclusively aimed at individual, obviously militant and suspected criminal, animal rights activists who got organized to commit criminal offences against persons and property and performed acts of self-justice,” he said.

Some of the most serious complaints of police’s tactics involve the searches and arrests. One activist testified to being taken from his home half dressed and held in the street outside his flat.

“He was handcuffed, in his underwear, in public, for all to see,” Weinzinger said. “That is against human dignity.”

Dr. Nicholas Simon, a law professor at Webster University Vienna, explained there could be two sides to the story.

“Arrests are supposed to be made under the utmost respect,” Simon said. He acknowledged, however, that if an arrestee were to become violent or try to flee, the police would be within their rights to take the individual into custody as is, with or without proper attire.

Pichler challenged that interpretation. “The police officers did not take action of their own accord but on behalf of an independent court,” he said. According to Simon, the activists’ jail time has followed normal Austrian procedure, with the first evaluation occurring two weeks after the arrests.

“Extensions [of custody] start at two weeks, then go to one month, and then to two months, and can go up to two years,” Simon said.

The next time the activists’ jail time is to be examined will be Jul. 4, Weinzinger said.

“If they’re lucky, it’ll be over by July 4,” Weinzinger said. “But the defense are saying to be prepared for another six months.”

The biggest legal issue seems to be over the exact implications of Section 278a and whether the activists truly have violated it.

“If (the arrest) was done on legal grounds – i.e. they got permission from the attorney general – but it is abusing Section 278a,”Weinzinger said, “Ii is [still] illegal in our eyes, because they are not producing any material as proof.”

The section’s specific language and criteria will be examined in court when the activists go before a judge.

“The concerns that the provisions of Art. 278a of the Criminal Code are [being] extended to comprise also socio-critical issues cannot be understood,” Pichler said. “In any event, an independent court will have to decide whether the matter in question meets the prerequisites for constituting this offence.”

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