Collapse in support for animal rights extremist attacks

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The Independent Online

The animal rights movement's disinterment of an elderly woman's remains, designed to demonstrate the lengths activists would go to halt experimentation, has contributed to the collapse of the movement's campaign of intimidation, two years after it seemed to be forcing British pharmaceutical firms overseas.

Figures released this week by the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry reveal a substantial fall in violent and intimidating animal protests, with just 20 outside the homes of scientists and industrialists in 2006, compared to 57 in 2005 and 259 in the peak year of 2003.

Scientists and police attribute the fall to the jailing of at least four of the most dangerous activists in the last year, thanks to police working with new legislation to stop so-called "home visits". The first to be arrested under the legislation - Mark Taylor, 38, of Wakefield, west Yorkshire - was told by a judge yesterday that he faces up to five years in jail for his attacks on Huntington Life Sciences, in Cambridgeshire.

But some in the animal rights movement also concede that the desecration of the grave of Gladys Hammond, mother-in-law of a guinea-pig farmer at Newchurch, Staffordshire, has robbed the movement of public support and forced a rethink of tactics. "We have had to look again at the consequence of that, what it means for the cause," one activist said this week. "Some will always want to go a step further but what's the value of that if even sympathisers hate you?" added another.

Veteran activist Gregg Avery, leader of the Stop Huntington and Animal Cruelty (Shac) group, has described the grave desecration as "creepy", though he refused to comment on the new figures this week.

Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, who was subjected to 10 years of attacks from the animal liberation movement, said the disinterment of Mrs Hammond may have been "a turning point" in the way the extreme activists are perceived. "There has been a gradual change in the media presentation of extremists," he said, "but the criminality at Mrs Hammond's grave was possibly the last stage in the process. It would be wonderful if there has been some kind of decision within the extreme elements of the movement that [intimidation] is counter-productive."

This week's figures show the number of abusive letters and text messages received by companies and their suppliers fell from 36 in 2005 to just six in 2006, when there were also 50 instances of damage to property compared with 86 the previous year. The 2005 Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act has provided powers to deal with home visits and harassment but Assistant Chief Constable Anton Setchell, who heads the National Extremism Tactical Coordination Unit, said the decision to replace individual police force investigations with a more co-ordinated effort into cases such as Newchurch was also delivering results.

But evidence that some activists are still prepared to launch violent attacks emerged as the new figures were published. A woman was injured last week when a letter exploded as she opened the mail at an Oxford bioscience firm specialising in DNA work. The letter bore the name of Barry Horne, the animal rights hunger striker whose death in 2001 activists have vowed to avenge.

Postings on one animal rights website also boast that British employees of the Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis have had tyres slashed and the words "animal killer" daubed on their homes.

The jailed ringleaders

The reduction in animal rights attacks is, in part, attributable to the conviction of ringleaders, half of whom are now in jail.

* Sarah Gisbourne: Jailed last February for six-and-a-half years. Specialised in attacks on cars and convicted of causing £40,000 of damage to Huntington Life Sciences employees' cars.

* Donald Currie: With Gisbourne, one of two most prized convictions for the police. Jailed indefinitely in December after admitting carrying out an arson campaign against HLS employees. Used home-made bombs to carry out attacks at the home of an executive at GlaxoSmithKline.

* John Ablewhite: Jailed for 12 years in September for his part in the Newchurch attacks, the frequency of which a made substantial impression on annual statistics. Had already served nine months for attack on the brother of Brian Cass, managing director of HLS.

* Mark Taylor: Told yesterday that he faces five years for attacks after becoming the first activist arrested under the 2005 legislation.