Jailed animal activist speaks from behind bars

Jan 25 2009 by Robin Turner, Wales On Sunday

THE Welsh "urban terrorist" starting a 11-year jail sentence for a hardline animal rights campaign has promised to give up targeting companies who aid testing laboratories.

Speaking exclusively to Wales on Sunday from the top security Bronzefield women’s prison in Surrey, Heather Nicholson says she plans to establish an animal sanctuary instead when she eventually gets out.

Despite vowing to end her years of activism against animal cruelty, the 41-year-old from Dunvant, Swansea, defiantly added: "We were right to take a stand against big business torturing animals for profit."

And she claimed it was "incredible" that as a protester wishing to end cruelty she had landed up in a jail alongside child killers like Rose West, serving life for 10 murders carried out with her husband Fred, who killed himself in jail.

She is also adamant she did not carry out any attacks or intimidation herself.

She said: "I have never hit or attacked anyone.

"Even the judge said I was not accused of actually intimidating anyone. It was just this amazing charge they came up with, ‘conspiracy to blackmail’, that was some kind of catch-all."

Nicholson, a leader of the international campaign Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (Shac) was sentenced at Winchester Crown Court last week after a jury decided she orchestrated intimidation against companies supplying Cambridgeshire animal testing firm Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS).

Six others jailed for conspiracy to blackmail included fellow Shac leaders, Heather’s 41-year-old ex-husband Gregg Avery and his second wife, Heather’s friend, 39-year-old Natasha Avery, of Hampshire.

Both got nine years.

The Shac campaign began after film shot secretly inside Huntingdon, and shown on TV showed staff punching and laughing at the animals in their care.

From 2001 to 2007 hundreds of people whose employers did business with HLS received hoax bombs, sanitary towels allegedly contaminated with the HIV virus, and letters threatening violence. They were also visited by vandals.

Their neighbours were sent letters warning that they lived close to a paedophile and the words "puppy killer" were sprayed outside their homes. More than 270 businesses gave in. The cost to companies of the criminal damage caused and increased security measures was £12.6m and HLS has to bank directly with the Bank of England.

An undercover operation named Achilles involving 700 police officers from the UK, Holland and Belgium, which led to hire cars used by Nicholson and her associates being bugged. was put in place by police in Hampshire where she lived. She was at home with her father George Barwick and 64-year-old mother Shirley at their home in the west of Swansea when more than 30 arrests were made.

She drove to Hampshire to give herself up and did not get bail. Her parents now look after her four rescued dogs.

Speaking by phone from HMP Bronzefield she said: "Our Government is big on allowing people the democratic right to protest but when you become effective at protesting they clamp down on you like the worst form of dictatorship.

"We formed Shac because we were genuinely heartbroken that trusting animals were being bred to be led into laboratories to have all sorts of unspeakable things done to them.

"We had no trouble raising money because millions of people out there are horrified at what goes on in animal testing but it was extremists, not us, who carried out attacks on people’s homes.

"We went out of our way to ensure our campaign was above board and legal but they found a way to bring us down.

"When I get out I plan to establish an animal sanctuary, maybe helping animals who have been tested on. The Government has me targeted so I want to help in any effective way I can.

"I find it incredible that as someone exercising a right to protest against cruelty I land up in jail next to people who have killed and tortured children."

Having served 20 months on remand Nicholson will be eligible for parole in around three-and-a- half years.

She said : "I am working as a listener helping vulnerable prisoners while in jail and making the best of it.

"My legal team is currently considering an appeal."

She changed her surname to Nicholson, her mother’s maiden name, on her divorce from Gregg Avery.

Brought up as a lacto-vegetarian, Heather loved animals as a child and as a teenager was devastated when she found the RSPCA at Swansea’s Singleton Park had a policy (now changed) of putting down healthy dogs who could not be re-homed.

She began campaigning by helping to defeat plans to export veal from Swansea Airport in 1993 then met Gregg Avery at a similar protest in Coventry Airport.

The pair fell in love and protested together. In 1997, after a 10-month campaign, they caused the closure of Consort Kennels, which bred beagles for animal research.

Later that year, they started Save the Hill Grove Cats against Hill Grove farm in Oxfordshire, which bred cats for laboratories. The farm closed after two years.

After seeing the TV footage of animals being abused at HLS they formed Shac and raised millions of pounds to protest and picket the laboratory.

HLS conducts tests on around 75,000 animals every year — including rats, rabbits, pigs, dogs and monkeys testing pharmaceutical products, agricultural chemicals, industrial chemicals, and foodstuffs on behalf of private clients worldwide.

During the Shac campaign Nicholson and Avery got divorced and Avery ended up marrying co-Shac leader Natasha Dellemagne.

Nicholson’s father, 73-year-old retired Neath-born teacher George Barwick has accused certain London-based tabloids of trying to "demonise" his daughter and other protesters.

He said: "After they split and Gregg and Natasha got together a newspaper said they were involved in ‘threesomes’ while living at the same house. That never happened. They just split up and that was that.

"One tabloid even claimed my daughter had become a pal of Rose West when all she ever said to the woman was ‘Can you pass me that brush?’."

Jailing Nicholson and the other six Mr Justice Butterfield said what they did amounted to urban terrorism.

He said the campaign group was a "vehicle used to terrorise ordinary decent traders carrying out perfectly lawful businesses" with the sole aim of closing down HLS.

He told them: "I expect that you will be seen by some as martyrs for a noble cause but you are not going to prison for your beliefs, you are not going to prison for expressing your beliefs.

"You are going to prison because each of you has committed a very serious criminal offence."

Despite the jailings, protests against HLS continue over the world.

A group of protesters were pictured in Red Square, Moscow, on Thursday with a banner proclaiming: "Free the Shac 7".