After more than 100 days in prison, activists from one of Austria’s most influential animal rights groups, VGT (Verein Gegen Tierfabriken, or “Association Against Animal Factories”), have been released. Christof, Elmar, Felix, Jan, Jürgen, Kevin, Leo, Martin and Sabine were set free by Austria’s Appellate court on September 2. (Christian had been released earlier.)
VGT secured a ban on battery hens in Austria that will come into force next year. Dr. Martin Balluch, president of VGT, says his imprisonment is a government reprisal on behalf of Austrian hen farmers. He said, “Sitting here in my jail cell it’s hard not to think of Guantanamo Bay. I am not a criminal. The government just don’t like change, and that is what our organization represent to them. They want to destroy us.” He said police were acting under government orders to create a criminal case against him in order to hinder his organization’s work. “The police acted out a strong bias to make it seem I did something illegal.”
Martin’s claims are backed up by government documents that were leaked last Friday detailing correspondences between prosecutors and police where the prosecutors demand police put a stop to the VGT’s campaigning, disregarding police advice that no criminal activities were found to be linked to the organization.
During his custody, Martin was visited by Alexander Van der Bellen, the leader of the Austrian Greens, who invited him to run as an independent candidate for the Greens in the upcoming national election on September 28. Martin will be elected at the Green Party conference on September 7. Van der Bellen told the Austrian Standard: “I have invited Balluch to run as a candidate for the Green party. He will be given a place high up on the list of candidates.” Van der Bellen described Martin’s candidacy to the ORF (Austrian TV) as “An expression of appreciation for the work of non-governmental organizations.”
From his prison cell a few days prior to his release, Martin said “Since our biggest animal protection success in 2004, we have been feeling the increasing repression by the police. That was when the Animal Protection Federal Law was passed leading to major costs for industrial livestock owners. We have evidence that the police has been advising companies practicing cruelty to animals how to effectively combat our legitimate campaigns and has been taking increasingly brutal steps against us. In 2005, an article was printed in the Austrian daily newspaper Salzburger Nachrichten in which a high-ranking official of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Action Against Terrorism claimed that Animal Protection was the biggest threat to national security in Austria.”
Martin says he was harassed by a long-term government campaign to have him imprisoned.
“For 18 months they bugged my car, followed my every move, filmed meetings and they found nothing. No evidence of criminal activity. All they could come up with were a few emails and quotes they took completely out of context and claimed were ‘subversive.’”
The Interior Ministry has refused to comment on these claims.
This case shows the strength of animal protection and rights organizations, which through their activities reached big goals in animal protection. It also clearly shows the repression of the state and police forces over activists and organizations, who through legitimate ways achieved what individuals, companies and the government did not want them to achieve.
More than one hundred days in custody did not break the spirit of organizations nor interfered with their activities. They will now continue fighting for animal rights and protection and realization of their rights, which were denied them.
Martin said he has fought for the rights of animals in Austria for 11 years and admitted expressing “radical opinions from time to time” but stressed anything he ever said was not illegal and did not warrant his being imprisoned. “Since I was imprisoned the police have interviewed me for over 20 hours, but not once have they asked me about a specific crime – ‘were you here at such and such time?’ — instead it’s been — ‘do you know so-and-so?,’ ‘what do they get up to?’”
Asked about his time in detainment, Martin said “It was incredible, I cannot find words for what I went through. They took my personal freedom for 110 days. I will need some time just to get used to the sunlight again.”
”I wasn’t in jail to pay my dues for a crime I had committed, I was there because the government think I am a nuisance and they want to stop me.” He added. “It was a political thing.” Referring to his organization’s success in having eggs from battery hens banned in Austria, he said, “We brought about democratic change and the government could not accept that.”
The Austrian fur industry reacted to the release of the activists with harsh words. The industry’s body said in a statement that the acts of sabotage it suffered — and holds the jailed campaigners responsible for — were vandalism and should not be mixed up with animal protection. The body said “Law has to remain law and offences caused need to be punished.” The union said Dr. Balluch’s statement that he would do everything the same given a second chance was “provoking.”