This is an extremely dangerous precedent which will have an impact on all forms of social action. The Belgian court has fundamentally undermined the right of citizens to freedom of expression.For example, one of the participants has been given a six month custodial sentence for talking to the press.[:]
Broad societal support
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. I did not know that Belgium was a banana republic” 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 will 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 defence in court.
On 15 January 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 these voluntary defendants.
The action on 29th May in Wetteren was carried out to draw attention to the major problems with and consequences resulting from the introduction of GMOs into agriculture and food chains.
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Background: the great potato swap
The defendants in the GMO potato trial took part in an action of civil disobedience in order to make a social problem visible.
On 29 May 2011, around 400 protesters swapped a number of genetically manipulated potatoes being grown in an open demonstration field trial for organic varieties which are cultivated because they are naturally resistant to potato blight.
They wanted to challenge the government agricultural policy which allows unwanted GM in food and agriculture while health and environmental impacts have yet to be sufficiently tested. By taking this action they were also taking a stand against the increasing privatisation of food production, including the patenting of crops.
Groups have been calling for a democratic debate about the introduction of genetically modified crops for years. Environmental and agricultural organisations including Wervel, Landwijzer, Greenpeace and the organic Bioforum have been campaigning constantly for sustainable agriculture and emphasising that GMO’s cannot be a part of this. They objected to the potato field trial which they described as unwanted and useless. They highlighted above all the environmental risks involved in such an experiment. Three experts from the Biotechnology Safety Council gave negative advice regarding the trial. They emphasised the environmental risks linked to the trial and pointed out that it was scientifically ungrounded. In August 2012 a judge in Ghent ruled that the GM field trial itself was actually illegal because there was no justification for the fact that the ministers responsible did not allow for objections or for minority positions on the Biotechnology Safety Council to be considered.
The action took place after all these other attempts for people to express their views had been systematically swept aside. The structural problems in agriculture, and the consequences of the use of genetically modified organisms have still not been openly discussed in Flanders and public debate about the issue is avoided.
The public prosecutor and the research consortium chose to have this debate in court via civil proceedings and direct summons.
The group of activists had prepared a thorough defence. This was based on calling up expert witnesses, video testimonies from scientists and video footage from the action to demonstrate that the action fitted within the bounds of freedom of expression, and that it was also necessary to take action to protect the precautionary principle.
The action in Wetteren was carried out to protect the environment, public health and small-scale farming.
Without allowing for any discussion the judges refused to hear these testimonies or view the video footage. The testimonies were important to emphasise the political nature of the action. The judges therefore denied the defendants their legal right to a defence, and the opportunity to question the use of genetically modified organisms in agriculture. They even refused to allow the 91 voluntary defendants to be part of the trial. The voluntary defendants showed that a large number of people do not accept the way that action taken to defend sustainable agriculture had been criminalised.
The message to the politicians, the media, academia and the judiciary is clear: we and many people with us will continue to struggle for a fair, sustainable, GMO free agricultural system, and this movement continues to grow.