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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.”

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.

Please visit the Association Against Animal Factories (VGT) Web site for more information and ways you can help: http://www.vgt.at.

 

UPDATE, Sept 3, 2008: VGT has announced that all the prisoners have now been released. Thanks to all who voiced their support!


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