A rash of vandalism, intimidation and arson across continental Europe in 2008 is evidence of a worrying new wave of animal-rights extremism being exported from Britain, according to experts contacted byNature.*
In early January, threats led to a Dutch developer withdrawing from a new, $89 million biomedical research park in the Netherlands. A month later, Hasselt University's Biomedical Research Institute in Belgium was set on fire. And in Barcelona in Spain, vandals targeted Novartis offices.
The pattern “is quite clear-cut”, according to Simon Festing, director of the Research Defence Society, a London-based group representing medical researchers. Festing tells Nature that he believes new, more stringent enforcement in the UK has led many extremists to move their activities overseas. “Activists are not finding it easy here,” he tells the mag. “So they're just going across to Europe.”
Over the past year, the UK has cracked down on animal-rights activists who break the law. Last May, police carried out Operation Achilles that led to charges against 16 activists. A trial involving several of them is expected to begin later this year.
Neither Interpol nor Europol, which coordinates European police activities, have firm statistics on extremist acts, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the UK's tougher law enforcement has led to a rise in activities on the continent. “It's been going on for years, but it's become worse,” says Robert Janssen, managing director of the Netherlands' biotech association NIABA. He estimates Dutch researchers and institutions have received more than 200 threats in the past year.
Andrew Jackson, deputy head of security at Novartis in Basel, Switzerland, says there has been an overall increase in both legal demonstrations and illegal acts. “We've had to increase the security of some of our facilities in Europe,” he tells Nature. Novartis says that incidents outside the US and the UK rose by nearly 50 percent last year to 97. There have been 15 events so far this year.
Jackson believes protests and criminal acts are being fueled in part by UK activists traveling abroad. “There is a perception that EU law enforcement has something of a soft touch,” he says, noting a correlation between availability of budget flights to Basel and extremist activity. “It makes for a fun weekend,” he notes wryly.
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