Barry Horne, 46, sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment, is starving himself to death trying to force the Government to outlaw experiments on animals. This morning, he will have gone 53 days without food.
Yesterday hundreds of animal rights campaigners around the country held protests supporting Horne. At York General Hospital, where he was transferred from Full Sutton prison, he receives up to 40 letters and cards of support a day. Friends have to read them to him as starvation has caused his eyesight to fail.
One might suppose Horne's support comes only from extremists who try to force the issue without thought for those they hurt in the process. But the cards and messages that line his flower-filled room come from a cross-section of British society.
Nancy Phipps, whose daughter Jill died four years ago when she was crushed by a lorry exporting live calves to the continent, is one who has visited Horne.
"We are just one step away from Barry," said the scriptwriter Carla Lane, an animal rights activist who sent a message of support. "You get to the point when you cannot sleep at night because of the images of what you have seen.
"You will never find people more committed or dedicated. And yet everybody in the media is so obsessed with what Barry has done rather than why he did it."
For the record, what Horne did was this. Based in a Birmingham bedsit, the father of two launched a series of incendiary attacks on shops throughout the south and west of England. In 1994 he caused damage worth millions of pounds to stores on the Isle of Wight before detectives caught him two years later.
At his trial last year the judge described him as an "urban terrorist" while the police said he was "dangerous, ruthless and absolutely committed". The sentence was the harshest ever given to an animal rights protester, despite the judge's acknowledgement that Horne had no intention of endangering human life.
Held in one of Britain's highest security prisons, he continued his fight the only way he could: by refusing food. In his eighth week of hunger- strike, Horne has lost more than 25 per cent of his body fat and lies on an inflatable mattress designed to reduce the pain as his body slowly consumes his internal organs.
Even if he resumed eating, doctors who recently visited him said his chances of survival would be less than 70 per cent. "Barry is very frightened. He is dreading that this might be the end,' said a fellow campaigner, Tony Humphries, after visiting Horne yesterday. "It is devastating. Those of us who have seen him regularly have seen him deteriorate, but for those who come every few weeks it is particularly hard."
Horne, who has staged hunger strikes before only to call them off, appears determined this time to take his protest all the way.
In a letter written in the hospital wing at Full Sutton, he said: "It's harder this time, but please don't read into it that my resolution is in any way not 100 per cent. In fact, the reverse is true... there is no longer any room for compromise. As such, my resolve to win is higher than at any time. I am determined to see it through and win the victory for the animals in the labs that they deserve."
As Horne's protest continues, his support seems to grow, with hundreds of animal rights activists from North Devon to Westminster protesting yesterday. "People perceive that compassion is universal. Just liberation struggles of the past, such as the fight for the abolition of slavery and emancipation of slavery, have attracted all classes and creeds," said Robin Webb, a spokesman for the Animal Liberation Front.
At Small Dole, West Sussex, several hundred campaigners demonstrated outside a farm owned by the Shamrock company, which allegedly breeds monkeys for experiments. A spokesman for the Save the Shamrock Monkeys campaign, said: "Today we protest in solidarity with Barry Horne against the evil vivisection industry. I think when someone is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for an issue you have to take notice of them. You say `This is really serious'."
But it is extremely unlikely that the Government will agree to Horne's demand to establish a royal commission to look at the issue of vivisection. While Home Office ministers, including the Home Secretary Jack Straw, have been briefed on the situation, the Government is adamant it will not be "blackmailed". "It is regrettable that Mr Horne has taken this course of action, but it is his decision," said a spokesman.
Should Horne starve himself to death, the reaction from animal rights protesters is likely to be dramatic. Special Branch is understood to have warned police forces around the country to be on their guard. A senior Scotland Yard source said: "There may well be an upsurge in potentially violent protest."
Horne, fading away on a mattress with three prison guards outside his hospital room, seems well aware of the weight his decisions will carry in the next few days.
Bobby Sands (above) died on 5 May, 1981 after a 66-day hunger strike failed to force the British government to recognise convicted IRA terrorists as political prisoners.
Margaret Thatcher, at that time the Prime Minister, told the Commons: "Mr Sands was a convicted criminal. He chose to take his own life. It was a choice that his organisation did not allow to many of its victims." Nine of Mr Sands' fellow republican prisoners also starved to death.
Convicted wife killer, Madhvani, 49, died on 31 May, 1994 after only 10 days on hunger strike. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his wife by Norwich Crown Court in 1981 but always claimed that her death was the result of a bungled suicide pact. Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary, allowed Mr Madhvani, to be released from the hospital wing of Chelmsford prison when it became clear his death was imminent.
Deng Zhuo, 38, began his hunger strike opposite the Chinese embassy in Portland Place, London in May 1989 to show solidarity with countrymen protesting in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. The hunger strike began as 5,000 Chinese marched through London..
Hu Jian, 44, an important figure in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, died on October 24 1995 after being refused medical treatment while on hunger strike in a mental hospital in Northeast China.Reuse content