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UK extremist attacks drop

Figures from the pharmaceutical industry show that violent animal rights protests less frequent this year than last

By | August 5, 2005

In the first six months of this year, the number of violent attacks undertaken by animal rights protesters has declined compared to the same period last year, although the severity of some of the protests has increased, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) reported this week.

Figures gathered by the industry group show that there were 35 cases of damage to private property by animal activists in the first half of 2005, compared with 56 in the same period last year and a further 52 in the second half of 2004. Damage to company property also declined, with just two cases in the January-June period, compared with 29 in the same period last year and a further 15 in the second half of the year.

A similar decline in other forms of protest, such as demonstrating outside the homes of people involved or associated with animal research, was also seen. "While the reduction in the number of incidents is welcome, it is disturbing that, in some cases we are seeing more aggressive attacks taking place," said Philip Wright, director of science and technology at the ABPI, in a statement. He said that a particularly worrying new tactic involved attaching incendiary devices to cars.

In a July 6 posting on the Bite Back magazine Web site, the Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for a fire in a boathouse owned by Hertford College, at Oxford University. The posting said that on July 4, an Animal Liberation Front cell broke into the boathouse and ignited it with "incendiary devices containing approximately 11 liters of petrol."

The attack was related to a new animal research lab being built at Oxford, the posting said. "Oxford University's holdings now own the contract to build the South Parks lab, as far as the ALF are concerned, this means that Oxford University as a whole must accept the consequences. From here on nothing you own, rent or have dealings with is off limits until the project is scrapped."

In a statement to The Scientist, a spokesperson for the university said: "We are appalled by the contents of [the] statement.... The intimidating nature of this message is totally unacceptable. The university is working closely with the police [and] remains firmly committed to the completion of this building, which is part of an ongoing program to replace and update existing laboratory space."

Just days before the fire, on July 1, a new law designed to clamp down on terrorists had come into force in the United Kingdom. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act was enacted in April, and makes it a criminal offence to target any scientist, research facility or company in the supply chain with a campaign of unlawful acts including criminal damage, trespass, blackmail, and libel.

Simon Festing, director of the Research Defence Society, a group funded by researchers, universities and charities, said that although the decline in attacks predated the implementation of the law, the two events were linked. "The strange thing is that it's a bit like when the Bank of England drops interest rates," he said. "The behavior of the extremists has changed in anticipation of it coming into force. They were already starting to realize that protests were going to be made illegal."

The law itself is symbolically important as an indication of the commitment of the government, but it is only one element needed to reign in violent protests, Festing told The Scientist. One such element is a program at RDS designed to advise universities and other institutions on how best to deal with animal rights extremists, he said.

A newly appointed manager for that project began work on Aug. 1, and is already meeting with universities and other agencies, such as the police force's National Extremism Tactical Co-ordination Unit, Festing said.

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