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The Case of the AETA Four

Police reports state that on October 21, 2007 a group of about twenty people trespassed onto the front lawn of the home of a Berkeley professor involved in bio-medical research on animals. According to the US government, some of the protestors had bandanas covering the lower half of their faces and they made “a lot of noise, chanting animal rights slogans” like “1,2,3,4, open up the cage door; 5,6,7,8, smash the locks and liberate, 9,10,11,12, vivisectors go to hell.”

A year and a half later, four young activists were indicted in California federal court under the little known and rarely used “Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act” (AETA) for their alleged involvement in this and others pickets.

The federal criminal indictment charged Joseph Buddenberg, Maryam Khajavi, Nathan Pope and Adriana Stumpo (now the AETA 4) with one count of “animal enterprise terrorism,” and one count of conspiracy. They each face ten years in prison if convicted.

Strangely, the criminal indictment against them doesn’t actually say anything about their chants or leaflets, or what else they are supposed to have done to violate the law.

There is some good news here. On July 12, 2010 a federal judge threw out that indictment, explaining that is was so general and vague it failed to provide the defendants with notice of what criminal act they are accused of committing, a constitutional requirement.

In his order, Judge Ronald M. Whyte described the indictment as “quite generic.” For “an indictment to fulfill its constitutional purposes,” he explained, “it must allege facts that sufficiently inform each defendant of what it is he or she is alleged to have done that constitutes a crime. This is particularly important where the species of behavior in question spans a wide spectrum from criminal conduct to constitutionally protected political protest.” According to the judge’s ruling, the government can re-indict these activists if they make the charges much more specific.

AETA prosecutions are not your average criminal cases. Trespass, threats, harassment – these are all activities that violate state law and carry criminal penalties. And any violence by activists, of course, can also be punished under state law.

The animal rights and radical environmental movements aren’t violent against people. The alleged illegal action that has occurred within those groups has primarily been the type of time-honored non-violent civil disobedience Martin Luther King, Jr. made famous, although there has been some property destruction. If no one is hurt, how can the government prosecute these kinds of acts as terrorism? Simple. First reward rapacious corporate interests with an incredibly broad federal law that equates any action that hurts the bottom line of a corporation with “terrorism.” Then issue generic indictments calling picketers terrorists, without explaining what they actually did. That is what happened to the AETA4.

This governmental tactic can drive those few activists who actually commit serious illegal acts far underground, while terrifying the mainstream movements into silence.

The AETA4 ruling is a rare victory for animal rights and environmental activists, whose communities are under COINTELRO-style attack in what has come to be known as the “green scare.”

Recent victims of this kind of governmental prosecution include the “SHAC7,” activists who ran a website documenting both lawful and unlawful protest activities undertaken in the campaign against animal testing by Huntington Life Sciences.

The SHAC7 were convicted of “terrorism” under the precursor to the AETA, the Animal Enterprise Protection Act, (AEPA) despite the fact that none of them were accused, much less convicted, of doing anything other than commenting on others’ legal and illegal actions. Also threatened with jail time under the AEPA is Scott Demuth, a young activist who defied an Iowa grand jury subpoena and was promptly charged with animal enterprise terrorism. His indictment is so vague and far-reaching that it seems designed to hold him accountable for every act of property destruction attributed to animal rights activists over two years and across several states.

While animal rights and environmental activists are the main targets of these new laws equating protest with terrorism, the law could potentially be applied to anyone who protests anything, and does it effectively. The AETA defines an “animal enterprise” to include any business that deals in animal research or uses or sells animal products. You can be accused of violating the law by traveling across state lines (or using the internet) to purposefully cause economic damage (like lost profits) to an animal enterprise. That is why CCR and other activist organizations are challenging these laws.

Environmental and animal rights groups are organizing against this law and against the green scare in general. Activists from other movements need to join them. CCR is involved in several of these battles, and updates are always available on our website, at www.ccrjustice.org or learn about the latest prosecutions by visiting the Civil Liberties Defense Center’s website, at ww.cldc.org. Attacks by government on our human and civil rights are always first directed at people on the margins who do not have widespread popular support. Animal and environmental activists are the ones under attack today. Unless we stand up and vigorously protect their rights to dissent, others, including us, will be certainly be next.

Bill Quigley and Rachel Meeropol are human rights attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights. You can reach Bill at quigley77@gmail.com and Rachel at rachelmeeropol@yahoo.com

 

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