International Repression

Although the current §278a case may seem like a local peculiarity, it cannot be denied that repression aimed at political activists is on the
agenda in many countries.

Therefore we are posting an article from Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements Volume 1 Number 2 (November 2009)

AETA, 278a and Conspiracy…

The Use of Racketeering Laws for the Destruction of Animal Liberation Activism


In the 21st century, the criminalisation of organisation per se, under the guise of anti-terrorist legislation, has been increasingly used against social
movements. Such legislation often carries higher penalties for membership in an organisation than for the acts which such organisations are accused of, and justifies the generalised surveillance of movement organisations. The animal rights / animal liberation movement, as a small but widespread movement, has been a testing ground for this legislation, but it is already being used against other and larger movements. The action note discusses the experience of activists in
the USA, UK and Austria. There is a call for support at the end of the note.

„Conspiracy to Commit Blackmail“, „Forming a Criminal Organisation“ or other similar sounding criminal proceedings have increasingly proven to be the downfall of many political activists in recent times. Not only in Austria, but in many other countries as well, racketeering laws have been used more and more against political initiatives in the past several years. Unfortunately the animal rights/liberation movement has been the foremost target of these developments.

Racketeering and Anti-Terror Laws

At the very latest after the murderous attacks on September 11, 2001 most western countries have enacted anti-terror laws. In many cases these are a special form of the laws against organised crime, which were standardised across Europe by 2004. 1

Racketeering laws do not punish crimes in the typical sense. Rather, they enable the penalisation of crimes of preparation. These include activities that are not illegal in and of themselves, but in connection with organised crime are regarded as a part of and in support of criminal actions, thereby catching the supposed “men behind the scenes, who do not get their hands dirty.” Thus according to an Austrian legal expert, the crime of organisation must be viewed as a “link in a chain of events, which ends in a completed felony” (Velten 2009).

The penalisation of crimes of preparation represents a type of shift to pre-emptive criminal prosecution. Not only crimes that have actually been committed are prosecuted, but instead the attempt is made to prevent the committing of these crimes in advance and thus to penalise preparatory actions as well.

Racketeering laws are not only used by law enforcement to criminalise political activists and their supporters. With racketeering laws, and especially with anti-terror laws, the penalties carry a disproportionately high sentence in comparison to the crimes that have actually been committed. Furthermore, by using anti-terror or racketeering laws, law enforcement officials gain sweeping legitimisation for the surveillance of suspects. A fact, which will become clearer through the following examples.


Racketeering laws were already utilised against opponents of the war in Vietnam during the 1960′s. Up until recently, they were rarely used against political activists and thus were mostly forgotten in this context. They became a topic of public debate again in May, 2004 when SHAC (Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty), an animal rights campaign, along with six activists, who supposedly coordinated anti-vivisection protests, were charged with “Conspiracy to Violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA)”. The AEPA, later renamed Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) 2 , was enacted in 1992 and aims to criminalise animal rights activists: the law places the “damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise” under penalty. 3 The six activists in connection with others were supposedly involved since 1999 in an incredibly successful campaign to shut down one of the biggest companies in the world conducting animal experiments, Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS). HLS is a contract-laboratory; in their four locations, HLS conducts experiments on animals requested (and paid for) by pharmaceuticals and the chemical industry, among others, in order to test the toxicity of substances. Every year about 70,000 animals are killed in experiments by HLS. The campaign is based primarily on legal activism such as protests, rallies and information stands, but also includes acts of civil disobedience such as run-ins, lock-on actions or occupations of roofs. On the outskirts of this campaign, which has been active for years all over the world, politically motivated property damage was applied to put pressure on HLS. The activists were charged with several counts of stalking 4 in addition to the charges of Conspiracy to Violate the AEPA. The countless witnesses who testified against the accused in court could not link any of the individual activists to felonies at all. In the end, they were merely accused of running the campaign’s website and publishing possible targets for protest, among them home addresses of HLS employees, as well as speaking out favourably about illegal actions against animal exploiters.

All six of the accused activists were convicted and sentenced to up to six years in prison.

II. England

In May, 2007 30 activists were arrested and house searches were conducted throughout Europe by over 700 police officers in connection with the same animal rights campaign. The investigations entailed not only the observation of activists, but also the bugging of living spaces and cooperation with spies, who worked their way into the movement. Many of the activists were charged with “Conspiracy to Blackmail” and seven of them were sentenced in January, 2009 to up to 11 years in prison. In addition some of them received lifetime ASBOs (Anti Social Behaviour Orders), which penalise any engagement against vivisection, including legal activities. Running a website, organising a meeting on the topic of vivisection and gathering signatures for a petition against animal experiments would mean a return to prison for the activists in question.

III. Austria

While various animal rights initiatives called out for a determined nationwide anti-fur campaign against the biggest Austrian clothing chain, Kleider Bauer, and the first protest actions took place, officials of the Austrian Ministry of the Interior made their first plans for crushing the campaign. In a meeting 5 with the management of the fur-selling company Kleider Bauer the decision was made to prohibit the regular protests in front of the shops. The reasoning that the police could no longer guarantee the safety after an incident of night-time property damage sufficed to ban the protests. The animal rights activists continued to make use of their right to assemble and the officials could not find a connection between the incidences of property damage and the legal protests, a fact that can now be read in the official police files. 6 Therefore section 278a of the Austrian Penal Code was brought into play to criminalise the coordinated protests. This law penalises the “Forming of and Membership in a Criminal Organisation” and has up till now been used above all in connection with allegations of human or drug trafficking.

Since Autumn 2006 animal welfare and animal rights/liberation activists have been under investigation according to the racketeering law 278a. From the very beginning the investigations were accompanied by an extensive application of surveillance measures, as was made known from the files: wiretapped mobile phones, localisation of mobile phones, homing devices on cars and personal observation over the course of months. As all of this did not lead to the desired success, the investigators continually expanded the investigatory measures. Thus not only were financial investigations launched into individuals and groups, but also at least one apartment was secretly bugged and hidden surveillance cameras were installed in front of apartment buildings in order to record discussions in private spaces and profile the movements of individual activists. At least 40 known activists and an unknown number of others were caught in the cross-hairs of the police task force, which was formed specifically for this case.

In May, 2008, special forces of the Austrian police searched 23 apartments and offices throughout Austria and arrested ten people. After three and a half months of pre-trial detention and an unparalleled worldwide solidarity campaign, the accused were released from jail. The chief prosecutors ordered the surprising release of the activists, claiming the length of the pre-trial detention was disproportionate to the expected sentences.

Nevertheless over a year later, in Autumn, 2009, the charges were made official. Although most of the original allegations were dropped, the accusation of “Membership in a Criminal Organisation” still remained. The accused are supposedly members of a criminal structure which has allegedly been in existence since 1996 and – according to the prosecutors – is responsible for all legal as well as illegal activities involving animal welfare/rights. Thus every activity related to animal welfare/rights is regarded as evidence of membership in “the Organisation”. Even legal activities such as registering a protest or organising lectures only serve to fulfil the goals of the “Criminal Organisation”.

In 2010, for the first time in post-war Austria, political activists will be tried in court for organised crime. The prosecutor in charge has subpoenaed over 100 incriminating witnesses for the upcoming trial. This fact alone ensures that the trial will end in financial ruin for the accused. Even in the case of an acquittal, they have to pay the majority of their legal defence expenses, which in a case of these proportions are expected to amount to several tens of thousands of Euros. Furthermore, in the case of a conviction the maximum sentences could reach up to five years in prison.

Abolish All Racketeering/Anti-Terror Laws

The increase in repression against the global animal rights/liberation movement is no coincidence as can easily be seen by examining the references made by the Austrian investigators to similar cases in the UK. Not only in the UK and Austria, law enforcement agencies are showing increasing interest in the animal rights movement – even Europol, the European network of such agencies, formed to fight international organised crime and terrorism, treats the movement for animal liberation as growing threat to European security. 7

Other social movements are also struggling with enormous repression launched by the state. In many countries, political activists are arrested and penalised for their opinions or political activities. Since the animal rights/liberation movement is relatively small and somewhat marginalised, yet extremely active, it seems to present an ideal testing ground for new surveillance technologies and novel methods of criminalisation employed by law enforcement agencies. It would not be surprising if these new tools were soon used against other political movements or even large parts of the general population.

In those countries where the application of racketeering laws has already proven of value, they are already used against a broad spectrum of political initiatives in court, such as anti-militarism activists in Germany, anarcho-syndicalists in Serbia or ecological-autonomous activists in France.

The increasing utilisation of such laws should not be underestimated as they can sooner or later threaten more and more political initiatives and constrain political activism as a whole. Therefore it is necessary to show solidarity with those targeted by these developments and to defend the opportunities and potential offered by organised political activism.


Velten, Petra 2009. “Die Organisationsdelikte haben Konjunktur: Eine moderne Form der Sippenhaftung? Banken und Tierschützer vor Gericht.” 55 – 63 im Journal für Strafrecht (JSt), Zeitschrift für Kriminalrecht, Strafvollzug und Soziale Arbeit, Heft 2.

About the author

Christof Mackinger is a student of social sciences working on social movements and different aspects of social criticism.
He is one of the accused in the Austrian §278a case.

  1. (October 17th 2009)
  2. The AEPA was changed in 2006 to the AETA. The major difference lies in the broader definition of what an “animal enterprise” is, the expansion of the maximum penalty, as well as the accommodation of the law to the new strategies of animal rights campaigns through the criminalisation of protests against the business partners of animal enterprises when their intent is to increase the pressure on the original target of the campaign.
  4. See
  5. See (in German), and
  6. See „Resümeeprotokoll vom 05. April 2007 “ (in German)
  7. See