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Woman jailed over blackmail plot
A former soldier who underwent a sex change has been jailed for six years for her part in a conspiracy to blackmail an animal testing company through a campaign of terror which involved the use of improvised explosive devices and the desecration of graves.
Debbie Vincent was found guilty last month at Winchester Crown Court of being involved in the Europe-wide conspiracy by the Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (Shac) group against Cambridge-based Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS).
Michael Bowes QC, prosecuting, told the jury during her trial that the protests, which targeted suppliers and customers of HLS, included falsely accusing staff members of being paedophiles, sending incendiary devices and hoax bombs, posting sanitary towels claimed to be infected with Aids, and causing criminal damage to people's homes and cars.
He said the aim of the campaign was to put HLS out of business through cutting off its suppliers by creating a "climate of fear".
The cost to companies linked to HLS through damage from arson attacks and other criminal damage as well as from extra security was more than £1 million, he said.
One target of the activists had the grave of his mother dug up and the urn containing her ashes stolen and never returned.
Sentencing the 52-year-old, who acted as the public spokeswoman for Shac, Judge Keith Cutler said: "It is difficult for a judge to calculate the repugnance felt by society to such appalling acts.
"Nothing at all could justify such attacks."
He added: "You express no shred of remorse or condemnation for the incidents of extreme terror and desecration which have been caused.
"There is not an inkling of understanding the distress those actions must have caused."
Judge Cutler also imposed a five-year anti-social behaviour order (Asbo) on Vincent to commence on her release from prison.
A group of supporters and animal rights protesters held a small demonstration outside the court building during the course of the hearing.
Judge Cutler said that despite her good character and positive character references, Vincent had been involved in a conspiracy which terrorised its victims.
He said: "You could not care less for the pain, distress and loss the conspiracy was causing others."
He added: "These measures were used with the fear and terror they caused, indeed some aspects of the case indicate the activists enjoyed causing such terror."
Judge Cutler said: "I come to a conclusion you are a lady of very good character indeed, if it wasn't for your complete obsession with your cause and an inability to accept its limits within law, there was so much good you have been able to do for other people you have met in your life and for all the animal welfare work you have done.
"There is so much there but sadly you have to face a considerable custodial sentence."
Vincent showed no emotion as the sentence was handed out to her.
Mr Bowes said: "There is no evidence that Debbie Vincent was present at the scene of any of the attacks or indeed in Europe or any evidence she was outside of the UK at the time of these attacks.
"She was however a knowing participant in the conspiracy to blackmail which did involve these attacks.
"Debbie Vincent's role grew and she was in the later period involved in the running of Shac."
James Wood QC, defending, said that Vincent was suffering health difficulties and had suffered the loss of her sister shortly after the conclusion of the trial.
Describing her as "vulnerable", he said: "Prison for her is going to be extremely hard to endure, the publicity which surrounded this trial focussed upon that feature of her background that was unique and unusual and the very frank way in her evidence she spoke of that background identifying in graphic terms her former role as a male soldier, her marriage and fathering of a child."
Mr Bowes said that the main tactic used was to publish the names of companies linked to HLS, and even those which are linked solely to its suppliers, on the Shac website which would then lay these firms open to the illegal acts of intimidation and violence.
He said: "The threat was chillingly basic, companies were told they were on the website until you publish your surrender and once you do we will very kindly take you off."
Mr Bowes said that Vincent worked alongside the masterminds behind Shac, Greg and Natasha Avery, at their headquarters in Little Moorcote, near Hook, Hampshire, and she was even given access to the computer used to co-ordinate the illegal actions.
The pair were among seven defendants jailed for a total of 50 years in 2009 for their part in the conspiracy.
The jury was shown an interview given by Vincent - who lived in Pampisford Road, Croydon, south London, but who now lives in St Marks Road, Easton, Bristol - to the BBC during the following month.
She said during the interview: "People are frustrated over the inaction of the government and the vested interest from the vivisection industry in addressing these important issues.
"And there will be more direct, what people call clandestine action."
Mr Bowes explained that the actions of Shac went beyond the right to protest or freedom of expression.
He said: "People are entitled to hold strong views in this country and freedom of expression is one of our most cherished liberties but what people are not entitled to do is menace others with their demands and this is about the making of unwarranted demands with menaces."
The case against Vincent was that she was aware of the militant actions but did not allege that she took part in them.
Vincent was arrested in July 2012 at the same time as Swiss-born Sven van Hasselt and British woman Natasha Simpkins, who was born in Germany, who were detained in the Netherlands and are still awaiting extradition to the UK to face the same charge.
Mr Bowes told the court that in April 2008 Vincent helped to organise and gave a speech at a demonstration held at the premises of Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis, a supplier of HLS, in Horsham, West Sussex.
He went on to detail a series of vandalism attacks on the homes of employees of Novartis including some in Germany where slogans such as "murderer" were painted on their homes.
The jury was shown photographs of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which had been placed underneath the cars of employees.
He also described how in May 2009, the then chairman of the board of directors at Novartis, Dr Daniel Vasella was targeted.
The grave of his mother in Switzerland was desecrated and dug up and the urn containing her cremated remains was stolen. Mr Bowes said the urn was never recovered.
Two crosses were placed in the ground, daubed in red paint, and the notional "death date" of Dr Vasella's wife was written on one of them, he said.
An email sent to Dr Vasella on August 18 2009 said: "You have 2 choices Mr Vasella: lose HLS or lose the urn."
The court was also told during the trial that an undercover police officer had infiltrated the group to gather evidence for the prosecution.
A CPS spokeswoman confirmed that the "undercover law enforcement officer", who used the pseudonym James Adams, gave evidence concerning meetings between Vincent and Novartis
Describing the undercover officer's involvement in the prosecution, a CPS spokeswoman said: "An undercover law enforcement officer known under the pseudonym 'James Adams' was involved in the case and he gave evidence during the trial as to his involvement in meetings that had taken place between Debbie Vincent and representatives of Novartis.
"Nothing further about his identity was revealed during the court proceedings."
The CPS spokeswoman also confirmed that during her evidence, Vincent gave her birth name as Peter Vincent and said that she had been a soldier in the British Army before undergoing gender re-assignment surgery.
A spokesman for the Metropolitan Police Service said that it did not comment on the activities of undercover police officers.
T/Commander Duncan Ball, head of the Met Police's Counter Terrorism Command (SO15), said: "The court found that Debbie Vincent's actions in attempting to prevent these companies from going about their legitimate business were a clear breach of the law and today's sentence reflects the seriousness of her actions.
"The tactics used were extremely damaging to those targeted and went far beyond lawful campaigning.
"The MPS remains committed to upholding the right to lawful protest. However we will not hesitate to pursue and prosecute those who are intent on committing criminal activity of this nature.
"Whilst the attacks against these companies and their employees had occurred in Europe, this case demonstrates that the MPS is committed to protecting the public and disrupting criminal activity.
"I'd like to thank the companies involved, the Dutch police and our other partners for their invaluable support and co-operation during this complex investigation."