The Austrian Animal Protection Trial
After the successful banning of fur farms in Austria in 1998, campaigners from two different groups focused efforts on raising the issue of selling imported fur with large shops and department stores with the aim of them taking animal fur out of their range. The strategies employed were legal, peaceful and always included making contact with store directors and managers to discuss the ethical problems involved with producing before commencing with demonstrations outside stores. This proved to be a successful strategy, with numerous stores deciding at the meeting stage to stop selling imported fur. With the clothing store Kleider Bauer however, it came to regular VGT demonstrations outside stores where customers going in and out could watch films of fur farming and had the option of taking a protest card which they could sign and send to the store saying they were withdrawing their custom until the store announced a policy change on fur. At this point the owners of Kleider Bauer visited police saying that the demonstrations were disturbing the customers and the police were instructed to increase their presence and document any cases of this happening.
Around this time there were a number of incidents of damage to property to Kleider Bauer's shop windows and to two of the owners' vehicles. The owners' response was to meet with senior officials from the Ministry of the Interior and police. It was at this meeting that the special commission for investigating the anti-fur campaign was formed. The minutes of this meeting document police as saying that they had no evidence or indication that the demonstrators were linked in any way to the cases of damage to property. Nevertheless, the director-general for public security ordered that all means at the police's disposal should be deployed to the full with the aim of stopping the demos taking place.
The special commission used a multitude of surveillance methods to secretly investigate a total of 267 individuals, including wire-tapping, putting bugs into cars, following people, online surveillance and the use of at least two undercover operatives. After the first eight months of investigating, the special commission had nothing to report other than a DNA trace found on a stone thrown at a march against racism. Rather than interpreting their results as barking up the wrong tree, the commission instead intensified their investigations by including video surveillance of large numbers of people. It was at this time that the idea surfaced of using the organised crime law against campaigners.
Then on 21 May 2008 at 6 am, heavily armed police officers from a elite unit stormed 23 homes and offices of different NGOs and their activists. Breaking their way in, the masked police surrounded the sleeping people in their beds at gun point before arresting them.
The NGOs that the people arrested were involved with, including VGT, had in recent years achieved numerous milestone reforms via peaceful means including a ban on battery cages for hens and a prohibition of the use of wild animals in circuses. VGT was due the very next day to launch a new campaign to have the constitution amended to include consideration for animals. However, although charges were (eventually) brought against the individuals and not against the NGOs, the extensive police raids where computers and bookkeeping were seized, brought all work to a standstill.
The ten targeted people were initially held in detention without charge and the majority of them were refused their right to call a lawyer or next of kin. Despite several years of previous police surveillance work and these massive raids, the prosecution failed to present any concrete evidence against the individuals, instead they were eventually charged with being members of a
criminal organisation, sec 278a of the Austrian Criminal Code. This law is intended for Mafia groups, human trafficking and other such serious crimes. Using this charge made it possible to accuse this randomly chosen group of activists, some of whom didn't even know each other, of unsolved cases of damage to property dating back over a decade even though there was no evidence connecting them to the crimes other than a presumed shared goal of achieving a change to the treatment of animals.
These rights violations and disproportionate measures provoked a strong reaction from Amnesty International, the Austrian Socialist Party and the Green Party who questioned police methods and the treatment of detainees, particularly the absence of evidence justifying reasonable suspicion or the probable cause for the arrests.
Detainee accounts of what happened are alarming: see, for example, this appeal sent out by Martin Balluch on June 9, 2008 and these interviews with English subtitles:
Interviews with accused VGT activists (German with English subtitles)
During their detention, several of the ten went on hunger strike and solidarity rallies were held around the world to show disgust at the Austrian authorities disregard for civil rights and this attempt to suppress political activism. Public figures released statements supporting the activists such as these from philosopher Peter Singer and Nobel Prize winner, Elfriede Jelinek:
Comment from Elfriede Jelinek (Nobel Prize for literature 2004)
All citizens have the right to actively stand up for or demonstrate against something. It is particularly important to stand up for animal rights because animals cannot stand up for themselves. People must do it for them. Animals, like all the defenceless, rely on this protection.
The remand detention lasted 105 days. The judge ordered their release on 2 September 2008 based on the length of their detention becoming disproportionate to the penalty for the alleged crime. As, at that time concrete evidence had still not been presented it was hoped that it would never come to a trial. However this was not the case and on 2 March 2010 the trial began of the ten individuals plus a further two activists, who had only been informed that they were to stand trial 18 days previously. In addition, at the start of the trial and indeed, to this day, the accused and their defence have not had full access to the prosecution files as guaranteed in the Declaration of Human Rights as well as in the Austrian constitution. The trial was to last well over a year, making it the longest in the history of Austria's second republic. The public was shocked at this inappropriate use of the mafia law and in protest, almost 300 people, including a nun, a priest and a member of parliament, submitted a self indictment to the public prosecutor laying out how, they too, had taken part in campaigns for social change where they were aware of the fact that in the name of the same cause, unknown persons had at unknown times broken the law. All the self indictments were turned down by the prosecution.
The gruelling trial saw all aspects of the defendants legal NGO work scrutinised, always with the prosecution's aim of construing it as organised crime. The major turning point came when it came to light that the police had deliberately withheld the fact that an undercover operative had been in place. She had had close contact to activists over an extensive period and when her report was read out to the court it became clear why her existence had been hidden. Her reports provided nothing but exonerating evidence. On 2 May 2011, the judge gave her verdict of not guilty on any count to all the 12 defendants.
Despite this full acquittal, the 12 were left with a bill of over 5 million Euros in legal fees and many of them lost their jobs and academic positions. One of them, Martin Balluch from VGT started proceedings, which are ongoing, to claim compensation for this miscarriage of justice.
The prosecution appealed the judge's verdict and in 2014 three of the acquitted found themselves being retried, this time accused of coercion (prosecution claimed that the strategy of meeting with store managers first to discuss their selling of fur, rather than launching into demonstrations straight away amounted to coercion) and animal cruelty (prosecution claimed that releasing pigs from a shed into a meadow constituted animal cruelty). The appeal judge swiftly found all three not guilty.
The retrial sparked a further round of self indictments, this time from over 3000 people, all making clear that they too had informed the clothing store of future demonstrations should they continue to sell animal fur. These too were not taken up by the prosecution.
Media reports ranged from ridicule and disbelief of the trial for its Kafkaesque nature to outrage at the amount of tax payers' money spent on the investigation. Following the trail, the judge was demoted whereas the chief prosecutor was promoted. A positive outcome of the whole affair was the change to the 278a law, no longer allowing it to be used against NGOs.
An award winning film was subsequently made about this miscarriage of justice by the Austrian film director Gerald Igor Hauzenberger – Der Prozess (with English subtitles), German version online on Youtube.