Finally, after more than 100 days of imprisonment, all the Austrian animal rights activists were released from custody on September 2nd. But the prosecution's unsubstantiated allegations persist.
Background information on the legal scandal surrounding the captured animal rights activists in Austria:
On May 21, 2008, the offices of various animal welfare and animal rights groups in Austria were searched by the police and materials crucial to operations were confiscated.
More than 20 animal rights activists, including employees of the VGT Austria and other animal welfare organizations such as the Four Paws and the Viennese Animal Protection Society, were accused of being members of a criminal organization. Ten of them were detained in different prisons.
Israel, Australia, the USA, Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Italy are just a few of the countries that have called for the release of the animal rights activists at international demonstrations of solidarity. University professors, scientists, artists and politicians have also been deeply affected. In an online petition they spoke out together with over 6000 other people against the arbitrariness of the police against animal rights activists.
Accusations remain unprovable
The detainees are accused of membership in a criminal organization. One condition for founding a criminal organization is that it consists of at least 10 people. Therefore, it is no coincidence that exactly 10 people were arrested and that they are also among the most active animal rights campaigners in Austria.
Even today, almost 3 months after the arrest, there are still no concrete allegations against the individual animal rights activists; even though the public prosecutor and the special police commission have tried hard to construct and exaggerate suspicions and to cover up exonerations. Some examples:
• One witness was made up.
• A letter of confession was fabricated.
• A stove fire in a hunter's hut was declared arson by animal welfare activists.
• The time of the offense was postponed by 2 days in order to construct a suspicion.
• The fire in a bedspring factory 9 years ago, in which the cause of the fire was unknown, was revisited as an animal welfare attack.
• An American newspaper interview with an animal rights activist was mistranslated to suggest he was admitting criminal offenses.
• Punctured tires in a police car are blamed on animal rights activists for no reason.
Reading the police file, it is amazing what the police cite as grounds for suspicion:
A media-effective crucifixion campaign containing animal masks at Easter leads to house searches of all participants: they are labelled "militant" due to the campaign. Filming fur farms, stopping livestock transporters or occupying offices are also described as “militant”. An animal rights activist who presents video footage from pig factories in an ORF broadcast is therefore considered the main suspect and filming in itself is mentioned as a criminal offense by a criminal organization. Attending “pertinent events”, i.e. international animal welfare conferences, is cited as a suspicion. An entirely friendly protest email is considered a threatening email, its author is investigated and suspected of criminality.
An animal rights activist is called militant because of attending a demonstration against bullfighting as well as posting on a literary forum on veganism; he is DNA tested and questioned. The animal welfare inspection body, which awards a seal of approval, is suspected of a protection racket; the judge allows a house search.
Evidently these allegations were all fabricated in order to maintain the pre-trial detention against the animal rights activists. Maybe because the Austrian animal protection movement has become too strong in recent years and has enforced some laws that are uncomfortable for the lobby? But perhaps also because the public prosecutor's office cannot afford having to declare the monitoring and investigation methods financed by the taxpayer as a failure (certain animal rights activists had their phones tapped and their e-mails read for years).
Thus, in order to save face in public, holding ten prisoners innocently in captivity for months and wearing them down more and more physically and mentally is considered acceptable. Martin Balluch was on a hunger strike during his imprisonment and had to be fed artificially in the infirmary. Open letters from detainee Chris Moser are heartbreaking in describing how much he misses his wife and three children.
How great his joy must have been when he learned on August 13th that his application for a detention trial had been accepted by the judge responsible and that he could return to his family. After almost three months of pre-trial detention, the first animal rights activist, Chris Moser, was finally released from custody.
This verdict finally got the ball rolling. The responsible public prosecutor was not satisfied with this release and turned to the chief public prosecutor's office. On this occasion, however, she also examined whether the other animal rights activists were justifiably held in custody. The chief public prosecutor decided that further detention would be disproportionate to the expected sentence and requested the immediate release of the 9 remaining detainees.
The relief from relatives and friends as well as animal rights activists all over the world was immense. The news of the surprising release spread like wildfire. Harald Balluch, Managing Director of the assocication against factory farming, points out: “The threat to civil engagement is still in the air. The claim that a criminal organization is present is not off the table. In particular, if this legal construction becomes a precedent, it will have far-reaching consequences for a whole range of organizations in civil society. Anyone who is engaged in animal welfare, environmental protection, human rights or whatever else would be in danger of being suspected, spied on and ultimately sent to court. "
With the release of the Austrian animal rights activists, at least the direst state of emergency has ended. However, the material seized from the animal welfare associations has still not been returned, making it impossible to continue working with the member lists. It is therefore important that the public continues to monitor events in Austria with skepticism.