February 12, 2013. Source: Field Liberation Movement
Today the court of Dendermonde convicted 11 activists of gang formation. In doing so, the judge has criminalised their participation in the non violent direct action and debate on May 29th, 2011, which brought attention to the need for a sustainable agriculture system.
This is an extremely dangerous precedent which will have an impact on all kinds of civil action. With this verdict, the Belgian court has fundamentally undermined the right of citizens to freedom of speech. For example, one of the participants has been given a six month custodial sentence for talking to the press.
After it became known that the anti-GM activists were to be charged with forming a criminal gang, a large number of people from the environmental and agricultural sectors, academics and politicians rallied behind the defendants and put themselves forward to join them in the dock as voluntary defendants. A number of organisations ranging from trade unions to farmers’ organisations, and including Oxfam and Greenpeace, expressed their solidarity with the charged activists. Today’s ruling will further strengthen this solidarity.
“This is absurd,” said Tjerk Dalhuisen, a Dutch defendant. “If the Belgian justice system thinks that this is the way to keep us quiet, then they’re wrong. We shall continue in our struggle for sustainable agriculture without genetic manipulation and without pesticides. We do not want to be guinea pigs in industries’ experiments and we will continue to make our voices heard.”
Marie Smekens, a young farmer and one of the eleven defendants, added: “The sentences are completely disproportionate. It is clear that this trial was designed to muzzle all forms of future protest.”
The defendants are appealling against the ridiculous verdict and demanding a retrial which respects their legal right to a appropriate defence in court.
On January 15th, the defendants and their lawyers left the court room and the trial after the judge had refused to hear their witnesses or consider their evidence. These testimonies formed an important part of the defences’ case as they emphasised the political nature of the action. The judge also refused to acknowledge the voluntary defendants.
The action on May 29th in Wetteren was carried out in order to draw attention to the major problems with and consequences resulting from the introduction of GMOs into agriculture and food chains.