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British Animal Activists Convicted

In a verdict that U.K. scientists see as a turning point in efforts to protect animal researchers against illegal attacks, a British court yesterday convicted four people of conspiring to blackmail companies that supply an animal testing laboratory.

The activists had targeted employees of Huntingdon Life Sciences, Europe's largest contract medical testing center, with threats of violence, vandalism of homes and businesses, letter bombs, and firebombs between 2001 and 2007. Prosecutors at the trial, held in the southern English county of Kent, said the campaign was also directed against GlaxoSmithKline, Astellas Pharma Inc., F2 Chemicals Ltd., and Biocair. The defendants, members of the group Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, will be sentenced next month along with three people who pleaded guilty earlier to conspiracy to blackmail. One defendant was acquitted.

The Kent trial grew out of 30 arrests made during a May 2007 police raid across the United Kingdom, dubbed Operation Achilles, which included sites in the Netherlands and Belgium. Simon Festing, the executive director of the Research Defence Society, tells ScienceInsider that, combined with similar trials over the past few years, the total number of convictions of such activists now stands at 30. He says those outcomes send a strong message that U.K. authorities are capable of protecting researchers. "This shutters the largest, most aggressive, and most unpleasant animal extremist organization in the world," says Festing, who notes that U.K. police have estimated the group contained about 40 to 60 active members. "Confidence is growing that police can deal with this problem. As a result, more and more scientists are willing to come out and explain the importance of animal research."

The police crackdown has been a boon to U.K. campuses. (The University of Cambridge abandoned plans in 2004 for a primate research lab, and activists have targeted an animal research lab being built by the University of Oxford.) Festings says there have been fewer than 10 criminal incidents this year, "none of them serious," a level that is the lowest in decades. "Now that people know most of the activists are in jail, it's easier to build and refurbish facilities and to attract investors," he says. "I think that people are becoming more comfortable in their ability to do good science."