Animal-Rights Group Trial Set to Begin
Feb. 07, 2006
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) _ The Web site run by Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty offers undercover video of beagles being slapped, force-fed and otherwise manhandled, allegedly by workers at a research lab that uses animals to test the safety of drugs and chemicals.
Federal prosecutors say the site did more than present the darker side of animal testing: They allege it also incited violence against the testing company, Huntingdon Life Sciences, and its employees.
Both sides are facing off in a courtroom this week, in what the animal activists call an exercise in free speech and what the government portrays as domestic terrorism.
Six members of the Philadelphia-based group, which goes by the acronym SHAC, were arrested in May 2004 and charged with animal enterprise terrorism, conspiracy and interstate stalking, part of a plan to drive Huntingdon Life Sciences out of business.
The defendants are the first to be charged in New Jersey under the federal Animal Enterprise Protection Act, a 1992 law that was expanded in 2002 and equates their alleged activities with domestic terrorism.
Jury selection began Monday at a federal courthouse in Trenton, where about 70 animal rights protesters picketed outside. Many held signs critical of the company for its work on animals, as well as the government for prosecuting the defendants.
The indictment lists numerous acts of vandalism, harassment and intimidation that followed postings on the group's Web site, including the overturning of a Huntingdon employee's car in the driveway of his home and the throwing of rocks through his windows.
Other alleged crimes include the smoke-bombing of the offices of two Seattle insurance companies that did business with Huntingdon, spray-painting and threatening to burn down the homes of several officials of companies doing business with Huntingdon, and a cyber-attack on Huntingdon's computer network.
``This is not activism,'' U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said at the time of the arrests. ``This is a group of lawless thugs attacking innocent men, women and children.''
The group makes no apologies for its five-year campaign against the British-based Huntington, saying it kills 500 animals per day and vowing to shut it down. Criticizing the company's operations _ and even applauding the illegal actions of others who lash out against it _ is not against the law, said Andrea Lindsay, a spokeswoman for the group.
``Anything they can pin on the defendants is an act of free speech,'' she said. ``The government contends it rises to the level of domestic terrorism. We say it's free speech.''
Officials of Huntingdon, which has a research lab in Franklin Township, say that animal tests are done as humanely as possible and stressed that their company is not on trial.
``We're grateful for the Justice Department's efforts in bringing this case, and we, along with the rest of the biomedical research community, will be watching the outcome very carefully,'' said Mike Caulfield, Huntingdon's general manager.
The defendants _ Kevin Kjonaas, Lauren Gazzola, Jacob Conroy, Joshua Harper, Andrew Stepanian and Darius Fullmer _ could face as many as 13 years in prison and fines of up to $750,000 each if convicted. Charges against a seventh defendant were dropped.
This is the second time the government has put the group on trial. The first trial ended in a mistrial last June after the lawyer for SHAC president Kjonaas became ill during her opening argument.
The group says it never told anyone to break the law or commit illegal acts. A section of its Web site urging people to call Huntingdon and companies that deal with it ``and ask them to justify their involvement in animal cruelty'' includes a caution that ``SHAC does not encourage repetitive, rude or threatening phone calls and e-mails. Make your point politely.''
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