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repression in Austria: Statement from Martin Balluch after his release


It’s now been a week since I was released from prison. 104 days in a prison cell are over! It is seriously shocking to see how far police repression will be taken in order to stop legitimate and successful protest for animals in the name of a majority of the population, just because it runs contrary to the profit interests of a powerful minority.

Many many thanks to each and every one of you for all you have done for me. I am deeply humbled by the immense amount of solidarity and support we prisoners have received from the international animal’s rights community.

I was released without the keys to my home, my car or my office being returned to me. I was also not given my computer, access to my bank account or even my wrist watch! If it had not been for friendly folk supporting me, I would have had to sleep rough during the last week, without any money. Our office – and the offices of 6 other animal rights groups – are still empty. Nothing has been handed back so far, no video material or photo cameras, no computers, no data of our membership, no photo- or film archives, and no book keeping. The intention is obvious: since the jailing of us had to be stopped, depriving us of any material is the next move to silence VGT and prevent us from being effectively active.

Let me briefly remind you how all this came about.

In 1997, we developed the idea in Austria of confrontative – but fully legal – grass roots campaigns including all means of civil disobedience in order to achieve reformist changes. The campaign targets were pragmatically chosen on the grounds of being practically achievable and supported by a majority of the electorate. The aim was, though, to see real changes, and not just symbolic gestures, i.e. changes that would make a world of a difference for the animals concerned – and for the people exploiting them.

In 1998, fur farming was banned and 43 fur farms had to close down. By 2002, a law had been introduced to ban all wild animals in circuses. In 2004, the campaign to ban cages for laying hens – including enriched ones – reached its peak. It was then that powerful interest groups felt our pressure for the first time. We confronted the governing Conservative Party, which was the only party opposed to a battery farm ban, during 2 provincial and 1 presidential election. The agricultural spokesperson of the Conservatives in the southernmost province reacted so angrily to our anti-election rally, that he actually attacked me on the podium during my speech and punched me in the face. The Conservatives lost all 3 elections and eventually gave in to the pressure. From that time onwards, it was not only death threats by farmers and their agents that became part of our lives. The secret service was put on our tracks. No demo went by without plain clothes guys with listening devices, watching and photographing us.

But the ministry of the interior went ever further. Our demos were banned to a large extent, we were fined huge amounts of money for the most minor law infringements and the ministry warned all schools about our “radicalism”. In addition, in 2005 the secret service arranged for a raid on our office to secure our accounts to try to charge us with some kind of tax fraud. We now have documents of meetings between secret service agents and our political enemy whereby they discuss suggested strategies against our demos and actions and arrange for coordinated media work to libel us. A spokesperson of the secret service called animal rights the biggest threat to national security and the minister of the interior named VGT publicly as a violent organisation.

When, on 2 occasions, some criminal damage was done to a car and the shop of a furrier, the secret service aided the furrier in publicising this damage widely in order to set up animal rights groups like VGT for being the target of police attacks in the future. Also, contrary to the spirit of the constitution, secret service advised our political enemy to register demos at places where we wanted to do demos, in order to give police a reason to ban our demos as, on paper, the space is already “booked”. These pseudo demos never actually took place.

When all this didn’t do the trick, another step of escalation was decided upon. At the end of 2006, the owners of Kleider Bauer and representatives of the Conservatives as well as high ranking police officers met and spoke about how to destroy VGT. The minutes of those meetings are now in our hands and make for gruesome reading. It says that there is no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing and that banning our demos cannot be upheld, so a special police unit consisting of more than 32 agents from the secret service, the murder division and from the anti-terror police locally and nationally was formed with the sole purpose of framing us.

This special unit started the largest operation of spying on political activists ever conducted since World War 2. For almost 2 years, 2 private houses, a pub as a meeting place as well as the VGT office were bugged. The telephone and the email conversation of more than 30 people were listened in on. Two cars, among them mine, had tracking devices put on them. 17 people were followed and watched 24 hours a day. 3 private homes had video cameras filming their entrances. And undercover agents were put into VGT to infiltrate us. Further, more than a dozen potential targets of animal rights activists were under permanent surveillance.

To justify this operation, secret service drew up a list of 240 acts of criminal damage and arson (including ripping up illegal circus posters) from the last 13 years, which might have had something to do with animal rights, and claimed there was one big international criminal organisation responsible for all of them. In order to inflate the damage, a number of cases of accidental fire were presented as animal rights related arson, and one butyric acid attack on a Kleider Bauer shop was enlarged to a damage of 500,000 euro, which later led to civil law suits because the insurance company made it clear that this figure was about 50 times too large. Most likely, that was another dirty trick out of the hat of the secret service, to inflate the damage out of proportion in order to be able to justify a violent police attack later on.

Since by May 2008, this huge surveillance operation had not come up with any hint of any criminal activity, the ministry of the interior escalated the police terror even further. On 21st May 2008, 23 police squads of between 30 and 50 officers each attacked as many homes and offices of animal rights activists in the early morning hours. The doors were smashed open and masked officers surrounded people in their beds pointing guns at their heads and went on to turn the places upside down. Since the law against criminal organisations, which was used in this case to justify the operation, states that at least 10 members are necessary to make the law applicable, exactly 10 people were put on remand while almost 40 were arrested and questioned for up to 10 hours.

Since police and public prosecution had absolutely no evidence against any of us, they spoke to media as well as the judges responsible for extending the incarceration and pretended that they had a huge amount of evidence, but it had to be kept secret since the operation and investigations were ongoing.

The judges complied and continually extended the remand detention without any charges being brought due to there being suspicion of a criminal organisation. This suspicion was described as follows:

· The use of non-public internet platforms to discuss issues

· Encryption of emails and computers

· The use of non-registered fully legal mobile phones

· The expression of supposedly radical opinions on internet discussions in the last 11 years

· Campaign work involving emails which demand changes and threaten the use of demos

· International contacts, especially international meetings and gatherings with foreign animal rights activists

This utterly ludicrous list of “evidence” of suspicion of a criminal organisation was seriously put forward by the judges to extend the remand detention. No criminal act was in any way connected to the 10 held in prison, but the judges argued that this was not necessary. The criminal acts were committed with the same spirit – to further animal rights – and that was sufficient. The mere existence of criminal acts committed somewhere at some time by persons unknown completely unconnected to the accused was used to turn legal groups into supposedly criminal ones. That criminal acts were never the issue is proven by internal protocols that surfaced, which showed that the special police unit concerned with the case had met 4 weeks into our prison stay to debate nothing but the issue how to further damage VGT. A number of ideas were put forward and an additional meeting on the same topic was agreed upon for 4 days later. Obviously, the question on how to destroy VGT – and not how to solve any crime – was highest priority in police meetings.

But police and state prosecution lost the media battle for public sympathy. An unprecedented wave of international protests in front of Austrian embassies in countless countries shamed the Austrian government. Throughout the whole 104 days of incarceration, daily demos were held outside the prisons and additional vigils and protests took place, including large protest marches drawing in 800 participants. The Green Party and the Social Democrats criticized the police actions with increasing impatience. A huge amount of protest letters were sent to the ministry of justice as well as to other politicians, heads of state and newspapers. Eventually, the Green Party decided to nominate myself as a candidate for the next Parliamentary elections.

At this stage, there was no sign of any legal moves succeeding in liberating the imprisoned. The case of whether the remand imprisonment was legal is still pending at the Supreme Court. A decision is expected within the next 2-4 weeks. In the meantime, political pressure was mounting, which suddenly led to our release on 2nd September, after 104 days.

The release was not justified by stating that there is no evidence, albeit that this is so obviously the case. The release was instead justified by saying that the time already spent in prison was out of proportion with the prison sentences expected if a guilty verdict were reached.

A weird move to save face! Instead of saying the truth that there is no evidence, the reference to an expected sentence was used, although the charge of criminal organisation carries a maximum sentence of 5 years – and arson 10 years.

The case is not over yet, though. The damage has been done, the threat of the law §278a criminal organisation is still looming above anyone being politically active. We are still accused, even if not charged. However, the longer this status is being drawn out, the longer police have the opportunity to claim that we are serious suspects, which they widely do in the press. A political trial would have the media watching, and then this ludicrous “evidence” would not stand a chance. In order to safeguard animal rights activism and, more generally, political activism in Austria, 3 things must be achieved. Firstly, those responsible for this police terror must be brought to account for what they did. Secondly, the damage inflicted must be fully compensated for. And thirdly, the law §278a must be revoked.

Exactly 40 years ago, the tanks of the then Soviet Union broke into the Czechoslovakian Republic to destroy with violence what has been called the “Prague Spring”, the new socialist system with a humane attitude. Dissidents were locked up and the tiny seedlings of a new society were violently uprooted. This attack on fundamental basic rights has been justly criticized all over the globe. Western democracies boast of being so different and defending liberal principles. But our case proves them wrong. New laws including bans on fur and battery farming, as well as the removal of fur and battery eggs from ever more department stores and supermarkets, were the animal rights seedlings marking the dawn of a new attitude. Dissident animal rights thinking was infiltrating ever more areas of society. And the tanks of a “democratic” system smashed it all up, and locked up the most active critical thinkers.

Yes, we have the right to free speech and to protest and to associate freely. But those freedoms end when they are used to effectively change society. You can express your opinion – as long as not enough people listen and act correspondingly. You can protest – as long as profits are not touched by it. And you can freely associate – as long as you only debate and do not influence society significantly by action. Austria has a relatively low level of animal rights related criminal activity, but a very high level of animal rights related successes. And Austria saw the largest and most violent police operation ever conducted against animal rights anywhere and anytime in the world. Is it not obvious that there is a direct connection?

Internal papers clearly reveal that the senior officers in the secret service consider any effect of political campaigning outside Parliament a threat to national security. Only Parliament is justified to direct society through electoral majorities. Political pressure from groups outside Parliament are not justified in principle, and therefore amount to terrorism.

If social activism seriously affects the profits of powerful cliques, the secret service is set in motion to smash this movement. However, in reality, outer parliamentarian pressure groups are the most important corrective of the abuse of power by influential cliques, they are the lifeblood of democracy and the safeguard to national security. Indeed, it is the secret service that poses the biggest threat to our constitution.

But so far, police violence has had the opposite effect on our movement than what they aimed for. We now have more activists than ever before. Animal rights is being taken seriously as a new social movement. It is being talked about everywhere. And the public sympathises ever more with us. Since having been released from prison, I have been approached countless times on the streets by strangers who congratulated me and wished me luck, and many even put money into my hands. People, who I mostly do not know, bought me a new computer, a watch, a mobile phone and a bike and even offered me a new flat to live in for a while. The bike shop gave me a 100-Euro-bikelock for free in solidarity.

The movement stood up in solidarity behind us prisoners. Now, as a movement we are more united and willing to cooperate than ever before. And the events prove beyond any doubt that our approach to achieving animal rights in the long run is effective. If the reforms we achieved had been welcomed by animal industries, surely they would not have sent the boys round to punch us up.

This year, our campaigns might have suffered a drawback. But when the case is won, we will push on with more energy than ever before. I am determined to see this through and am looking forward to new advances towards animal rights in the years ahead.