GAndALF Freed After Spell In Prison
This is the case of the GAndALF three. It's not Tolkein fantasy, although it gets that weird. It's cost over £4 million, involved 55 separate police raids, MI5, the Canadian Mounties, an Italian connection, an ex-military judge, state censorship Public Immunity Certificates, a conspiratorial silence in the press and three-year prison sentences. Gibby Zobel reports.
April 1998 - Squall 16, Summer 1998, pg. 18.
We are at a night of the Liberation tour, a sixteen-date national campaign for the release of the GAndALF three. Robin Webb, a silver-haired softly-spoken gent and animal rights activist, delivers the big joke of a black-humoured evening. Namely, the ludicrous criminal charge he and co-defendent Paul Rogers still face, and on which three men - contributors to the radical journal Green Anarchist - were thrown in jail.
First, they were found guilty of "conspiring to incite criminal damage". It's worth taking a pause here as we drift from reality, from the actual incident of, say, smashing a window. The GAndALF three are journalists reporting, say, the smashed window. The logic assumes that by writing about the smashed window, they are inciting more window-smashing. And that they are conspiring with others to do so, although the three maintain they didn't even know each other. What's more, the charge is for "unspecified criminal damage". There is no one smashed window, one crime. The people who have been incited are unnamed, they are "persons unkown". And the date of the incited crime? Well, they've narrowed that down to "unspecified dates" between 1991 and 1996. Ha, ha, ha. Comedian Mark Thomas joked that it was like blaming Martin Bell for the war in Bosnia.
But the biggest joke of all is that, despite the huge cost and resources, no-one is in jail. The GAndALF three, having served four and a half months of their sentence, were freed on bail in a shock move on March 27th. Steve Booth, 38, Noel Molland and Saxon Wood, both 24, walked out of their cells within hours of High Court Appeal Judge, Mr Justice Smedley, signing papers for their immediate release, effectively undermining the original ruling.
It was a highly unusual legal move, drawing comparisons with the Bridgewater Four or the Birmingham Six. On release Steve Booth said: "The guard said he'd never heard of this happening before. We'd heard a rumour that the reason we'd been let out was that Amnesty in the US were about to list us as political prisoners."
Other heavy-weight organisations began to back their cause. This clear case of denial of free speech was not lost on Index on Censorship, more used to reporting brutal censorship in far off regimes, which reprints samples of the 'offending' words on its website. The National Union of Journalists became involved, and Liberty called for the catch-all "conspiracy" laws to be abolished. Saxon Wood reckons "it had become too much of a hot potato". The release has led to the hope that their convictions may be quashed, but that will have to wait for the appeal and even a possible retrial.
The drive behind Operation Washington, launched by Hampshire Police, was to entrap the Animal Liberation Front press officer Robin Webb. The farce began when Robin Webb forwarded a press release he had been sent, to a regional paper reporting the deliberate contamination of eggs in Tescos. During 1995/96 alone there were 55 separate police raids.
When the trial eventually began on August 26th 1997 there were six defendants, including Simon Russell, editor of the ALF Supporters Group newsletter, who was eventually found not guilty. Paul Rogers was severed from proceedings when his barrister resigned rather than call a secret state witness, and the case against Robin Webb collapsed. That left the GAndALF three to face Judge Selwood, an ex-army Major General who described Green Anarchist as "the most contemptuous document I have ever seen in my entire career".
The desperation to get a conviction led to extreme measures, and questionable use of public resources. Sgt Gunner, one of the Operation Washington team, was sent on a week-long fact-finding trip to Italy because he believed that someone in Italy had received a letter from a defendant that was relevant to the investigation. Then one of the defendants was accused of the 'crime' of putting a report about the Justice Department (an animal rights group) on the internet. In fact, it was North American ALF SG co-ordinator Darren Thurston, and the court in Portsmouth agreed to fly him in from Vancouver, Canada. However, on arrival at Heathrow, he was immediately deported as an 'undesirable alien' on advice from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The awareness of the vastly under-reported case came originally from a hundred-strong pledge of solidarity from the first Alternative Media Gathering in Oxford during the three-month hearings.
Paul Rogers explained that the tactic of isolating Green Anarchist from the movement, and therefore the general public, back-fired at this point. Instead of intimidating the alternative press into silence, it galvanised them into a stronger defiant focus. The pledge stated that: "Environmental degradation, animal cruelty, economic injustice and poverty, attacks on personal freedoms, wars, the arms trade, nuclear weapons - these, among many others, are the real inciting factors, not the reporting of direct action protests. The best way to fight for our freedoms is to exercise them." Yet, as Judith Vidal Hall, deputy editor of Index On Censorship, pointed out: "Their imprisonment was disgraceful and I find it very curious that it passes without comment from the mainstream media."
Copies of the offending publications are available from: Green Anarchist, BCM 1715, London, UK, WC1N 3XX.
The ALFSG Newsletter, BCM 1160, UK, WC1N 3XX.
Or visit the Index On Censorship solidarity site: www.oneworld.org/index_oc
For more details, affiliations and offers of support contact the GANDALF Defendants* Campaign at: GDC, P.O. Box 66, Stevenage, UK, SG1 2TR. For tour details contact: 0956 694922