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Taking Aim at Activists
31 January 2005 (All day)
A new law could send animal rights activists in Britain to jail for up to 5 years if they cross the line between peaceful protest and harassment. The new rules, introduced in parliament on 31 January as an amendment to a larger anti-crime bill, would specifically outlaw campaigns that target businesses that provide supplies or services to research organizations. It would also make it illegal to protest "outside someone's home in such a way that causes harassment, alarm, or distress to residents," according to a government statement.
Barbara Davies of the RDS (formerly the Research Defense Society) in London, a lobby group that defends animal research, said the law could provide important support. "There have been amendments to laws on harassment and intimidation before, and we thought that would work. But it's getting worse," she says. Key advantages of the new law, she says, are that it would make it easier for authorities to charge the organizers of campaigns and increase protection for companies that work with organizations that do animal research. Last summer, work stopped at a new research lab in Oxford after construction company shareholders received threatening letters from activists (Science, 23 July 2004, p. 463). And in recent months, animal rights activists have been charged with dozens of attacks—including desecration of a family grave—against a guinea pig farm near Birmingham that supplies research labs.
Some animal rights activists are worried that the measures go too far. The law could potentially target peaceful protesters and boycotts, says Andrew Tyler of Animal Aid in Tonbridge, Kent, which has organized demonstrations against the Oxford lab. The prohibition against demonstrations in front of residences could allow police to shut down protests at university research facilities that happen to be near residential buildings, he worries. Parliament is expected to debate the measure this spring.