It’s a start

It may not seem like much when it comes to dealing with animal rights “activists” who cross the line into vandalism, harassment, and intimidation, but it’s a start:

Three animal rights activists who organized a campaign to harass employees and clients of a New Jersey research lab were sen tenced to prison yesterday by a judge who said their commitment to social justice had morphed into frightening and sometimes violent protests outside people’s homes and offices.

“The means used, the harm im posed, almost arrogantly, is serious — and warrants serious punishment,” Senior U.S. District Judge Anne Thompson said.

She ordered Kevin Kjonaas, the onetime president of the U.S. chapter of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty, to serve six years in prison. Co-defendants Lauren Gazzola of Connecticut and Jacob Conroy of California received terms of 52 and 48 months, respectively. Three more defendants face sentencings today and next week.

The hearings signaled the end of a case that had drawn attention from social activists and their targets, and represented a clash of ideals. Law enforcement officials portrayed the SHAC activists as domestic terror threats; supporters claimed the prosecution violated free-speech rights.

The protests began five years ago, when members of Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty began showing up each month at Huntingdon Life Sciences’ lab in Franklin Township, Somerset County, where researchers use monkeys, dogs, fish and other animals to test drugs and other products.

Following tactics developed by their counterparts in Great Britain, where Huntingdon Life Sciences is based, the activists then turned their sights from the company to those who kept it afloat: its employees, clients, investors, suppliers and firms with which it did business.

They descended upon targets’ neighborhoods at dawn with bullhorns, spray paint and posters, visited their churches and encouraged supporters to flood their phone or fax lines.

No one was seriously injured in the U.S. protests, but Huntingdon and others claimed millions of dollars in lost business, vandalism and other damage.

If more of these “activists” faced real jail time when they cross the line from free speech to intimidation, they might think twice. Even if they only do a 2-3 of years in prison before being released on parole (which is what is likely to happen), it should be enough to send a message. Also, the possibility of having a felony conviction on one’s record would give most people pause, even if the jail time is only a few months. In fact, the arrest of these six may already be having that effect, at least in New Jersey:

But the lead prosecutor, Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles McKenna, said Kjonaas wasn’t motivated by compassion as much as the “sheer power” he felt by bullying international corporations. He noted none of the defendants apologized.

“There is nothing noble about what Mr. Kjonaas did,” he said. “There is nothing noble about in citing the kind of harm that Mr. Kjonaas reveled in.”

Kjonaas declined to address the judge except to say it had been a traumatic and learning experience for him and his family. Asked later about appeal plans, he said, “I’m pretty confident I’m not going to do five years in prison. I’ll be back.”

U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie called the punishments “appropriately long sentences.”

Leslie Wiser, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Newark divi sion, said the group’s “terror tac tics” backfired and “in the end they only served to drive themselves into a prison cell.”

Mike Caulfield, general manager of Huntingdon’s New Jersey facility, said there have been occasional protests, but nothing on the scale of attacks like several years ago. He was buoyed by the sen tences.

“On behalf of the dozens of victims who have had their lives turned upside down by these crimes, we’re grateful that justice was served,” he said.