Democratic countries around the world recognize human rights as one of the cornerstones of social justice. Among the civil liberties bestowed upon citizens in a democracy are freedom of political expression and freedom of speech. Another is due process, wherein the principle of judicial transparency ensures a detainee is charged or released within a reasonable period of time.
Yet, even democratic nations sometimes suspend these rights when it suits a purpose — a lesson well known to social activists, whose lawful campaigns are sometimes suppressed by their government in an attempt to maintain the status quo.
This abuse of power has been shockingly demonstrated in the case of Dr. Martin Balluch, president of the Association Against Animal Factories, and nine other animal activists in Austria. In the early morning hours of May 21, 2008, heavily armed law-enforcement officers of the elite WEGA squad stormed 21 homes and the offices of six animal rights groups in Austria. The masked police confronted frightened civilians in their beds at gun point. They arrested 10 people, who have been held in custody without a specific charge, though Austrian authorities are claiming the accused acted through their organizations to commit acts of criminal damage to property, duress and menacing threats. (One activist, Christian Moser, was reportedly released just this week due to psychological stress, though he may have to return to jail.) Authorities have also blamed a cabin fire on Martin, calling it arson; the fire was in fact caused by hunters, who freely admitted they are to blame for the accidental blaze.
Amnesty International has questioned the police methods and treatment of detainees, particularly the absence of actionable evidence justifying “strong suspicion” or any “probable cause” for the arrests and that the activists have been denied access to legal counsel. Despite a statement from the Austrian Federal Ministry of the Interior that “The measures taken by the police were in no way directed against animal welfare or animal welfare organizations,” Amnesty International is also concerned that the seizure of computers, documents and other assets has left the targeted animal rights organizations unable to continue their work.
A number of milestone reforms on behalf of animals have been achieved in Austria in recent years, including bans on fur farms, battery cages for hens and the use of wild animals in circuses. At the time of the police raid, Martin and his colleagues at the Vienna-based Association Against Animal Factories were campaigning to have a 26-year-old chimpanzee named Matthew Hiasl Pan legally declared a person. Matthew was captured as a baby in Sierra Leone in 1982 and smuggled to Austria for use in pharmaceutical experiments. Customs officers intercepted the shipment and turned him over to a shelter, which has since filed for bankruptcy protection. Getting Matthew legally declared a person would help ensure that he and another chimp at the shelter, Rosi, don’t become homeless. The case was still being fought when Austrian police launched their May 21st raid.
From his prison cell Martin wrote in June:
“Yes, animal protection is terribly important to me and I have dedicated my life to it. Yes, I believe that the horrific treatment of animals in laboratories and animal factories is not irrelevant in general or to my life, but is instead comparable to the torture and abuse of people. But this does not make me a criminal. For 25 years now I have been active for animal protection and not once have I ever been convicted of a crime. In this country we have the freedom to express our opinions and the freedom to think as our conscience leads us to. At least that is what I used to believe until very recently. The civil and human rights guaranteed by the Austrian Constitution forbid persecuting, abusing and locking away someone for their beliefs. But indeed, exactly that is what is happening to me….
“This scandal cannot be tolerated. I ask everyone who cares about animal protection and human rights to take action now to prevent this crime. This kind of police arbitrariness against NPOs [non-profit organizations] is something we might recognize in dictatorships, but not in a democracy. Please stand up strong; stand against this outrageous injustice. My life depends on it.”
Activists have held solidarity protests around the world, and supporters are urged to write to the activists still being held: http://www.vgt.at/actionalert/repression/gefangene/index_en.php.
UPDATE, Sept 3, 2008: VGT has announced that all the prisoners have now been released. Thanks to all who voiced their support!