A Comment on the Austrian Situation

This morning, I received a copy of a press release concerning the arrest and detention of Martin Balluch and other animal advocates in Austria. These advocates are apparently being held without any formal charges being filed against them. I have also read the Amnesty International statement that is translated on the website of Balluch’s organization. Amnesty International expresses concern about the lack of specificity of the search warrants, the manner in which the warrants were executed, the fact that the accused are not being fully informed of the evidence against them or being given access to their counsel, and the use of statutes intended to address organized crime, which risks criminalizing or chilling the legitimate and peaceful expression of protected speech and threatens freedom of association.

According to Amnesty International, the Austrian authorities are claiming that the accused acted through their organizations to conspire to commit or to cause to be committed acts of “criminal damage to property, duress, menacing threat.”

I have absolutely no idea whether there is any evidence to support these charges. And I have been very clear for many years now that I oppose all violence and regard the principle of Ahimsa as the foundation for the abolitionist movement. But it does not matter what Balluch and the others are accused of. They, like everyone accused of criminal wrongdoing, are entitled to know with specificity the charges against them and to know what evidence exists to support those charges; they are entitled to assistance of counsel; they are entitled not to have the execution of a search warrant be an occasion for harassment; and they are entitled not to have their legitimate and legal activities disrupted by the overreaching use of organized crime statutes.

I find it very difficult to believe Balluch’s claim that the Austrian government is persecuting him and the others because of their role in campaigning for Austrian animal welfare laws. These laws are hardly a cause for alarm by anyone. As I discussed in an earlier essay, the Austrian laws, like welfare laws generally, further entrench animal exploitation and do nothing to eradicate the property status of animals.

But that is beside the point. If the Austrian authorities have evidence of criminal wrongdoing, they should file formal charges and initiate a public and transparent prosecution. If they do not have evidence, then they should release those being held.

I have been a lawyer for almost 30 years and I have represented many individuals, including many animal advocates, who have been harassed by the authorities. I have also taught Criminal Law and Criminal Procedure for many years. I fully understand how the weight of the criminal process can be wielded by governments. It is very disturbing to see liberal democracies that supposedly celebrate “the rule of law” routinely ignore it. This is an example. Unfortunately, it is one of many.

Gary L. Francione
© 2008 Gary L. Francione