Thursday, March 02, 2006

Trenton, New Jersey U.S. - Six animal welfare advocates associated with the group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) were convicted in federal court of conspiring to cause financial damages to an animal testing company. The defendants were commonly known as the SHAC 7 before the government dropped charges against one of their co-defendants. The company Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) performs vivisection experiments on about 75,000 beagle puppies, rabbits, mice, and other animals each year, and kills 500 animals a day. The defense was not allowed to present any evidence that related to the cruelty of vivisection or reflected on the virtues of the SHAC protests.

The crux of the government's case was that SHAC used its website, which was taken offline following the verdict, to encourage others to commit crimes against HLS and its supporters. The group's campaign to get HLS to stop testing on animals or close down has had a large degree of success. Dozens of large companies, including The Bank of New York, Stephens Inc. and Marsh Inc. have pledged in writing to never have anything to do with HLS again.

Five of the defendants, Kevin Kjonaas, Joshua Harper, Lauren Gazzola, Jacob Conroy, and Andrew Stepanian were taken into custody immediately upon receiving the verdict. Darius Fullmer is free pending their sentencing, which is scheduled for June. Defense lawyers said that the verdict will likely have a very chilling effect on free speech. Pamelyn Ferdin, the current president of SHAC Inc., told the jury that "for the government to say you can't say this and you can't say that is going down a very scary path of going toward fascism." The defendants expect to receive sentences of between 3 and 8 years in jail.