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18 March 2014, 17:16
An animal rights activist has been found guilty of being involved in a "menacing'' conspiracy to blackmail a major animal testing company.
A jury at Winchester Crown Court convicted 52-year-old Debbie Vincent of being involved in the conspiracy run by the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (Shac) group against Cambridge-based Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) during a 10-year period.
Michael Bowes QC, prosecuting, told the trial that the protests - which targeted suppliers and customers of HLS - included accusing staff members falsely of being paedophiles, sending incendiary devices and hoax bombs, posting sanitary towels claimed to be infected with Aids, and causing criminal damage to people's homes and cars.
In one case, the militant members of the conspiracy dug up the urn containing the ashes of the mother of the chairman of a supplier to HLS.
Mr Bowes said that the aim of the campaign was to put HLS out of business through cutting off its suppliers by creating a "climate of fear''.
The main tactic was to publish the names of companies linked to HLS, and even those linked solely to its suppliers, on the Shac website that would then lay these firms open to the illegal acts of intimidation and violence.
He said: "The threat was chillingly basic, companies were told they were on the website until you publish your surrender and once you do we will very kindly take you off.''
Mr Bowes said that Vincent worked alongside the masterminds behind Shac, Greg and Natasha Avery, at their headquarters in Little Moorcote, near Hook, Hampshire, and was even given access to the computer used to co-ordinate the illegal actions.
The pair were among seven defendants jailed for a total of 50 years in 2009 for their part in the conspiracy.
The jury was shown an interview Vincent - who lived in Pampisford Road, Croydon, south London, but who is now based in Bristol - gave to the BBC during the following month.
She said during the interview: "People are frustrated over the inaction of the Government and the vested interest from the vivisection industry in addressing these important issues.
"And there will be more direct, what people call clandestine, action.''
Mr Bowes said the actions of Shac went beyond the right to protest or freedom of expression.
He said: "People are entitled to hold strong views in this country and freedom of expression is one of our most cherished liberties, but what people are not entitled to do is menace others with their demands and this is about the making of unwarranted demands with menaces.''
Mr Bowes told the court that in April 2008 Vincent helped to organise and gave a speech at a demonstration held at the premises of Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis in Horsham, West Sussex - a company that Shac linked to HLS.
He said: "There is nothing wrong with that if that's all you are doing, but the prosecution says it goes much further.''
He went on to detail a series of vandalism attacks on the homes of employees of Novartis, including some in Germany where slogans such as "murderer'' were painted on their homes.
The jury was shown photographs of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which had been placed underneath the cars of employees.
He also described how in May 2009, the then chairman of the board of directors at Novartis, Dr Daniel Vasella, was targeted.
The grave of his deceased mother in Switzerland was desecrated and dug up, and the urn containing her cremated remains was stolen. Mr Bowes said the urn was never recovered.
Two crosses were placed in the ground, daubed in red paint, and the notional "death date'' of Dr Vasella's wife was written on one of them, he said.
An email sent to Dr Vasella on August 18, 2009, said: "You have 2 choices Mr Vasella: lose HLS or lose the urn.''
Vincent was arrested in July 2012 at the same time as Swiss-born Sven van Hasselt and British woman Natasha Simpkins, born in Germany, who were detained in the Netherlands and are still awaiting extradition to the UK to face the same charge.
She will be sentenced on April 17 and was released on bail until then.
Following today's conviction, senior crown prosecutor Alastair Nisbet said: "This case was not about interfering with the right of activists to express their views about the use of animals in pharmaceuticals testing and lawfully protesting against it. It was about Debbie Vincent's involvement in an agreement to commit very serious criminal offences against companies that were carrying on a lawful business, and against their employees, in order to intimidate them into ceasing to trade with Huntingdon Life Sciences Plc.
"The sole objective of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty was to cause HLS to close down. Shac activists demonstrated against that company but failed to achieve their objective and then went far beyond peaceful demonstration and into criminal activity. This was the latest in a series of prosecutions for the same offence that have resulted in guilty pleas or convictions after trial, and substantial sentences of imprisonment.
"The jury at Winchester Crown Court heard how the group had, by deception, obtained information about the employees of companies they thought were trading with HLS, and how they took what they described as 'direct action' against them, including damaging their homes and cars, sending threatening letters or hoax bombs, and making false accusations of paedophilia.
"The direct action continued in Europe and a number of companies were targeted. The houses and cars of employees were damaged; incendiary devices were used; and a family grave was desecrated.
"Following the conviction of Shac's main leaders in 2008, Debbie Vincent's role within the organisation grew. She became the public face of Shac but, behind a veil of respectability, she was involved in the criminal side of the organisation
"The prosecution did not allege that Debbie Vincent herself had committed any of the direct action offences, but the jury has found her guilty of knowingly being involved in an agreement with others to pursue the objective of Shac by such threatening and intimidating actions.''