The ringleaders of a group of British extremists who led a lengthy campaign of intimidation against companies and individuals involved in animal testing were sentenced to jail terms of up to 11 years on Wednesday for conspiracy to blackmail.
Heather Nicholson, one of the founders of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), established to close down the UK’s leading commercial animal testing unit, was condemned to 11 years, while Greg Avery and his wife Natasha, the other founders, received 9 year terms after pleading guilty.
Four other SHAC researchers and ”foot soldiers” - Gerrah Selby, Daniel Wadham, Gavin Medd-Hall and Daneil Amos - received custodial sentences of 4 to 8 years.
The extremely tough sentences, which may be appealed, sent a stark warning of the determination by police and prosecutors to clamp down on extremism in recent years after long-running concerns over threats to medical research expressed by academic scientists and drug companies alike.
Sentencing at Winchester Crown Court, Mr Justice Neil Butterfield, said: ”I expect you will be seen by some as martyrs for a noble cause but that would be misplaced. You are not going to prison for expressing your beliefs, you are going to prison because you have committed a serious criminal offence.”
Karen Gardner, from the Institute of Animal Technology, said: ”The sentences today are a massive step forward when compared to the history of prosecutions of animal rights extremists. They reassure everyone working in biomedical research that we are safer from extremists now.”
SHAC had led a decade-long campaign against Huntingdon Life Sciences, and when the company proved resilient to threats, it targeted the company’s customers and suppliers with tactics including slurs, threats and vandalism of employees.
An intensive police operation called Operation Achilles traced its activities over six years, culminating in a series of coordinated raids in the UK, Holland and Belgium in 2007 involving 700 police, which led to the arrest of 32 people.
The increasing political attention and funding for probes into extremism, combined with other legal tactics to limit attacks, demonstrations and fund-raising, has weakened the activists, and led to a reduction in the number of ”home visits” to company executives’ recorded by the pharmaceutical industry.
While SHAC always claimed that its operations were within the law, police experts recovered encrypted and deleted files on computers showing links from activists to more radical websites claiming responsibility for the attacks.