Jury selection for the trial of six animal rights activists, all charged under domestic terrorism laws, has begun in U.S. District Court in Trenton, New Jersey.
Prosecutors say the defendants, members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC), used threats and intimidation against employees of Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS), a British-based research firm with offices in East Millstone, New Jersey, to force it out of business.
SHAC has targeted HLS, as well as other companies doing business with HLS, for several years because it uses animals to test the safety of drugs and chemicals. It has claimed responsibility for several bombings and dozens of acts of vandalism and harassment in both the U.S. and Europe. Its campaign against HLS has become a transatlantic cause among radical animal rights activists since the late 1990s.
The six defendants (dubbed the “SHAC 7” by supporters before charges against another man were dismissed), were arrested in May 2004 by federal agents in New York, New Jersey, California and Washington. SHAC spokesperson Kevin Kjonaas, 27, was apprehended in Pinole, California, as was Lauren Gazzola, 26, whom the indictment identified as SHAC’s campaign coordinator, and Jacob Conroy, 29. Darius Fullmer, 28, was arrested in New Jersey. Andrew Stepanian, 26, a member of the Animal Defense League, an animal rights group that works with SHAC, was arrested at his Long Island, New York, home. In Seattle, Joshua Harper, 30, a self-described anarchist and SHAC activist, was arrested as well.
The indictment alleges that the defendants encouraged others to conduct a campaign of harassment and intimidation against HLS employees and tried to force the company out of business through acts of vandalism, stalking and computer hacking. The indictment further charges that SHAC targeted employees and shareholders, as well as companies that provided services to HLS, by posting personal information on its Web sites and encouraging followers to “operate outside the confines of the legal system.”
The defendants are the first people to be charged in New Jersey under the Animal Enterprise Protection Act – amended in 2002 to include “animal enterprise terrorism” – which outlaws the disruption of research firms like HLS.
Andrea Lindsay, a spokeswoman for the group, which is currently based in the San Francisco area, said that while “SHAC has never told people to go out and intimidate people,” the group advocates “putting pressure on these companies and employees.”
John Lewis, FBI Deputy Assistant Director for Counterterrorism, recently characterized the group, along with other ecoterrorist groups and movements, as the nation’s top domestic terrorism threat.
The defendants face a maximum $250,000 fine and three years in prison if convicted.