Political persecution in Austria
On 21 May 2008, special units of the Austrian police arrested 10 leading campaigners from the country’s successful animal protection movement. The activists, among them a former research assistant at the University of Cambridge, were put on remand. The Ministry of the Interior boasted they had hunted down a criminal gang responsible for numerous cases of arson, gas attacks and bomb threats.
However, the imprisoned people insisted that the prosecution files they were eventually given access to contained absolutely no evidence of any criminal offence but rather a description of their campaigning for changing laws and business policies. One of the prisoners went on hunger strike and stayed without food for 39 days. Fierce criticism came from many well-known personalities and organisations, including Amnesty International and the Green Party.
After more than three months, a senior state prosecutor ordered release of the activists, saying the time spent in custody must be in proportion to the expected sentence. This drove away most of the public attention, but the case wasn’t over. In February 2010, the state prosecution announced that enough evidence had been found to put 13 animal protection activists, including the ten who had spent three months in custody, on trial.
Four of the activists have released their charge sheets on the internet. The worst fears have been fulfilled. There is nothing in the charge sheets that could be seen as evidence of criminal behaviour. Rather, the activists’ supposed membership in a criminal organisation is deduced from an extensive list of expressed opinions and political activities, such as organising demonstrations and public conferences.
The trial is expected to last 6 months. The activists are facing up to 5 years imprisonment and will have to pay over ?35,000 each for defence lawyers, which will not be reimbursed even if the trial results in acquittal.
This cannot be tolerated. Austria must not be allowed to terrorise its citizens with financial ruin and imprisonment because of their political activities.
The Austrian animal protection movement was long considered one of the most successful in the world. Between 1998 and 2008, it managed to significantly reform Austria’s animal welfare legislation, achieving a ban on fur farming, a ban on using wild animals in circuses, a ban on experiments on great apes, a ban on battery farms for hens and rabbits, and an introduction of the institute of animal solicitors. All parliamentary political parties pledged to implement animal protection in the federal constitution. These successes were achieved by smart campaigning, with use of regular demonstrations, media work, lobbying, and acts of civil disobedience.
However, not everyone was happy about the successes of the movement. Laws improving animal welfare, like the ban on battery farming, clashed with business interests of animal industries, which made many politicians reluctant to endorse them. But the campaigners managed to use public support to generate pressure on these politicians, which forced them to accept the laws eventually. Understandably, this led to an ever increasing tension between the animal enterprises and the politicians on one side and the successful campaigners on the other side.
In 2006 and 2007, the property of a department store Kleider Bauer, in front of which anti-fur demonstrations were held every week, was damaged several times by unknown individuals. After one such attack, the two owners of the company attended a secret meeting with the heads of the police and the interior ministry. As seen from the minutes (disclosed later by the media), the police chief pointed out that no evidence of a connection between these attacks and the demonstrations had been found. But incredibly enough, the chief of the ministry’s public security bureau ordered the police to “exhaust all administrative possibilities to ban the demonstrations in front of the company”.
However, this was just the beginning. The most significant decision of the meeting was the foundation of a special investigation unit SOKO which was to focus on the well-known animal protection activists and organisations. Thirty-three elite police officers were allocated for this task. During the next 12 months, a gigantic spying action was put into operation. All phone calls of the leading campaigners were tapped and their movements were followed by tracking their mobile phones; e-mails were read, including those which were several years old; organisations were infiltrated with spies, and cameras and bugs were installed in cars, offices, and private homes.
The damage caused by unsolved attacks on the property of animal enterprises within the past ten years was claimed to be ?600,000 (although 70% of this sum was dismissed by the insurance company in charge). Nevertheless, the police did not hesitate to pump several million euro into this investigation. In a secret interview with an Austrian daily, “Österreich”, a police officer from the Austrian federal criminal agency said the following: “When we do investigations against drug dealers, child pornography traders, or Russian mafia, exceeding a budget is always a problem. But in this case, money was never an issue.”
On 21 May 2008 at 6am, special units of the Austrian police stormed into 23 private houses and offices. Doors were smashed down, beds were surrounded by masked police men and half-sleeping inhabitants were threatened with firearms pointed at their heads. Ten long-term animal protection activists were sent to prison on remand custody. The Ministry of the Interior boasted they had hunted down a large criminal gang responsible for numerous cases of damage to property, arson, gas attacks and bomb threats.
But the imprisoned activists were not informed about what exactly they were supposed to have done. Access to the prosecution files was simply withheld. As a result, some of the prisoners went on hunger strike, asking to see the evidence or be released immediately. Protests emerged both in Austria and abroad. Fierce criticism came from Amnesty International, the Austrian Green Party and some social democrats; well-known personalities, such as Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, wrote protest letters. Demonstrations were held in front of Austrian embassies around the world.
When some parts of the files were finally made available, the activists and their lawyers unanimously insisted that the disclosed papers did not contain any evidence of criminal behaviour but rather a list of completely normal NGO activities, such as organising demonstrations or public conferences. The state prosecution refused to comment on these serious objections, referring to continuing investigation and supposed independence of the court. One of the prisoners, Martin Balluch, a double doctor and former science assistant at Cambridge University, continued on hunger strike and persisted for admirable 39 days.
“On day 36 I reached a new low point, which gave me near death experiences. I had this strong impression of being suspend above a complete void. I was about to fall into it. I pictured my situation as being up to the neck in a crevice, standing on such thin ice that could not hold my weight much longer. I could not get out anymore by myself.” Martin Balluch in a later letter from prison.
The activists were forced to stay in conditions which didn’t even remotely correspond to the principle of presumption of innocence. They were locked up for 23 hours a day in small cells; they were allowed to exercise for just one hour a day in a concrete courtyard. They could only have a shower or accept visits twice a week and were denied physical contact with their loved ones as they could only speak to them via a glass panel for 30 minutes. No wonder some of the activists were forced to use anti-depressive drugs.
On 2 September 2008, a few weeks before an early parliamentary election, a senior state prosecutor suddenly ordered release of the activists. As a result, most of the public and media attention was driven away from the case. But it wasn’t over – on the contrary. The release was only justified by the necessity of “proportional length of detention to the expected sentences” – the accusation and the imprisonment were not questioned. In October 2008, the supreme court delivered a verdict saying that everything had been carried out correctly.
The lives of the activists had been severely impacted. Depression, anxiety, panic attacks and sleeping problems were commonplace. Most had to undergo psychotherapy. The movement was effectively paralysed. Some of the activists completely gave up campaigning, and even those who would continue were unable to work normally as the police refused to return computers, files, photo and video materials, donors’ databases and other essential items which had been confiscated as part of the raids in May 2008. Furthermore, the police continually refused to give the activists full access to the investigation files, creating ongoing uncertainty about what else was still being hidden from them. When the court finally ruled that this is unacceptable, the police simply ignored the verdict.
In February 2010, the state prosecution announced that 13 activists, including the ten who had previously been in custody, would be charged and put on trial because of their alleged membership in a criminal organisation. Four of the charged activists decided to release their charge sheets in full on the internet. This was a breakthrough. Finally, it was possible to evaluate from an objective source whether the extreme measures taken against the activists could have ever been justified.
The four activists who have gone public with their charge sheets (including Martin Balluch and Christian Moser, who were kept for three months in custody) are charged under Section 278a of the Austrian Penal Code. They are said to be members of a criminal organisation which is allegedly responsible for crimes, such as threats or damage to property, that have been committed by unknown individuals against companies or individuals associated with the fur trade, animal experiments, hunting or similar use of animals.
But looking carefully into the charge sheets, the only proven “connections” between the four activists and the criminal offences are as follows
* although the perpetrators of the criminal offences are unknown, it seems likely that the motivation of their acts was the same as the motivation of the four activists for taking part in legal protests and campaigning – e.g. to encourage a shop to stop selling fur;
* as a journalist for a radio programme, Martin Balluch has sometimes reported the fact that these offences were committed;
* the four activists have occasionally expressed opinions, mostly on internet platforms, which the prosecution sees as evidence of them being in favour of these offences.
Based on this “evidence”, the prosecution claims that the four activists’ legal campaigning activities and the unknown people’s criminal offences must be considered to both be part of one campaign run by a criminal organisation, which means that even the legal campaigning is in fact criminal as it supports this alleged criminal organisation.
This is why normal NGO activities, such as filming the conditions on animal farms, organising demonstrations, conferences and workshops, storing leaflets against hunting or discussing campaigning strategies, are all indeed listed in the charge sheets as evidence against the activists, without even attempting to prove that any criminal offence was planned or carried out as part of these activities. This is obviously a complete negation of the rule of law.
The activists are now threatened with up to 5 years imprisonment. With 115 witnesses invited by the prosecution, the trial is expected to last six months. This not only means an extreme disruption of the activists’ personal lives, but also the costs of legal defence amounting to at least ?35,000 per person. The Austrian law gives the activists no right to be reimbursed for these legal costs even if they were eventually found not guilty.
The release of the charge sheets by the four activists has confirmed the worst fears. Through massive surveillance, the Austrian police were clearly unable to find anything other than a few expressions of opinions, showing that the activists probably have some sympathies for destroying property of enterprises which they consider unethical. Despite this, the long-term police observations were unable to prove that they had committed any such offence.
But the Austrian state has no scruples. To overcome the complete lack of evidence, the prosecution has exploited the vague formulation of Section 278a and de facto adopted the Orwellian concept of thought-crime. The activists’ “criminal thinking” is used as evidence of their alleged affiliation with a criminal organisation and this alleged affiliation as evidence that their legal animal protection activities are in fact criminal. Mocking Austria’s own constitution, even organising demonstrations is explicitly presented as one of such criminal acts.
With this justification, the activists were one morning woken up by masked police men with firearms pointed at their heads. Martin Balluch and Christian Moser were locked up in cells for three months, one being isolated from his wife and small children, the other spending more than a month on hunger strike. The supreme court later ruled that everything had been carried out correctly. Having already managed to ruin the activists financially and psychologically, the Austrian state now wants to put them back in prison for up to 5 years.
By releasing the charge sheets, the four activists have proven beyond doubt that they are being persecuted for their opinions and political activities. This is in itself a human rights scandal, regardless of whether there is any justification to prosecute the remaining 9 activists. But since these are charged under the same Section 278a, it is to be assumed that the evidence against them is based on similar grounds. When 13 political activists are kept under direct threat of a financial ruin and up to 5 years imprisonment, it is hard not to suspect that this is an attempt to clamp down on the whole social movement, which has simply become too inconvenient.
Please add your voice to the protest against this flagrant violation of human rights in Austria.
Brussels, 31/03/10 – SOLIDARITY DEMO FOR AUSTRIAN ACTIVISTS
Demonstration in front of the Austrian Embassy.