Seven on hunger strike after being held on remand without charge for eight days

29/5/08

A leading Austrian animal rights campaigner has passed the seventh day of a hunger strike in protest at draconian arrests by the authorities. Dr Martin Balluch was one of ten people arrested after twenty-four homes and offices of animal welfare activists and organisations were raided by the elite WEGA police force at 6.15 a.m. on Wednesday 21st May. Seven of the campaigners are now on hunger strike. The police action appears to have been prompted by anti-fur protests but after a week no charges have been brought.

Harald Balluch, managing director of the VGT (Association against Animal Factories) and brother of Martin, described the scene in his flat. “I awoke to the sound of the door being broken in, immediately a group of armed and masked people surrounded my bed where my girlfriend and I were sleeping and aimed their weapons at us. They screamed at me that they would shoot me if I moved. We have two elderly rescued dogs, who were brutally manhandled. As you can imagine, all four of us were absolutely terrified.”

Lawyers representing the ten campaigners have issued formal complaints against the police concerning a string of human rights violations. These include detention without being charged for all those on remand, unnecessary force used by the police during the house raids and DNA samples being taken from two of the detainees against their will using force.

Martin, who is the President of VGT, was only allowed a visit for the first time by his family and girlfriend on 27th May and they were horrified at his weak condition. Martin said, “After so many days without food I feel very weak. If I move quickly, then everything revolves. But I still have confidence in the rule of law in this country, that we here in Austria cannot be treated in this way without good reason. And that's why I will continue on hunger strike until I am either given a reason or released”.

The animal protection movement in Austria has at the same time been a thorn in the side of influential people for several years and an example to the rest of the world of progressive law changes to the benefit of animals. Achieving bans on fur farming, wild animals in circuses, battery cages and caged rabbit farming campaigners have shown what is possible. Martin Balluch has led a series of high-profile inspections into the conditions of pig production, resulting in public outrage against farmers and the fear of legal improvements. He has also provoked international interest last year by bringing a legal case to establish a chimp as a person in Austrian law so that a legal guardian could be established. An English woman living in Vienna , Paula Stibbe, has been proposed as the guardian for the chimp, called Matthew, whose sanctuary has been under threat of closure.

After a successful four-year anti-fur campaign against the clothes retailer P&C a further street campaign, showing footage of conditions for animals on fur farms to shoppers, began two years ago against the chain store Kleider Bauer, the only Austrian department store still to sell fur. There have been accusations of arson, smashing windows and spray-painting and the authorities claim that the protestors belong to a criminal organization responsible for these actions. Harald Balluch distances himself and the VGT from any illegal activities. “This police action is designed to discredit the work being done for animals. The intention is to damage the reputation of animal campaigners and campaign work. Through the police raids our office, along with four others, has been brought to a stand still. Our computers with our complete data bank have been taken along with all our mobile phones and years of research material. We have no possibility of contacting our supporters. Our phone and fax lines were also out of order for sometime after the raid making contact with media impossible.”

The Austrian Green Party has criticized the Crown Prosecution Service for withholding documents from lawyers whilst the detainees continue with their hunger strike. Brigid Weinzinger, the Spokesperson for Animal Welfare, said, “Unless the Crown Prosecution Service has concrete charges that they can bring against the detainees, their detention on remand is clearly unlawful. It is prohibited by law to keep a person locked up on remand as an attempt to discredit legal animal welfare campaigning, or because the legal campaigning on behalf of animals causes some politicians discomfort. Withholding documents from the detainees' lawyers is a deliberate attempt to prevent them from being properly defended. This constitutes a massive infringement to their rights.”

Demonstrations in solidarity with the protestors have been taking place in Vienna , Wiener Neustadt, Graz , Bregenz , Hamburg , Berlin , Stockholm , Munich and Salzburg.

 

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© Keith Mann
puppypincher@yahoo.co.uk