POLICE and prosecutors fought a first-of-its-kind case to convict animal rights activists targeting a Herefordshire-based research laboratory, its staff, suppliers, business partners, and even neighbours.

Evidence gathered by Operation Tornado led to a five-month trial at Birmingham Crown Court which, because of restrictions imposed at the start, can only now be reported.

Tornado used powers under the 2005 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act to bring charges against activists. It is the first time these powers – which create the offences of interfering with or conspiring to interfere with the contractual relationships of an animal research organisation – have been successfully used in a contested court case.

Sean Kirtley, aged 42, of Orford Way, Malvern, was jailed for four-and-a-half years for his part in organising what the trial heard was a long-running campaign of “intimidation and harassment” against staff working at Sequani Ltd in Ledbury and other businesses that Sequani used.

Kirtley was found guilty of the conspiracy charge at Birmingham Crown Court last month and sentenced at Coventry Crown Court a fortnight ago.

At an earlier hearing, 39-year-old David Griffiths, of Bridge Street, Worcester, admitted two charges of interfering with the contractual relationships of an animal research organisation and was jailed for 30 weeks, suspended for two years.

Kirtley, described as a dedicated animal rights activist, was made the subject of a criminal anti-social behaviour order (CRASBO) to govern his actions once he leaves prison.

Griffiths was made the subject of a Prohibited Activity Requirement to dictate his actions and must also complete 100 hours of community service.

Tornado started in 2005 to gather evidence against a group of activists linked to the internet-led Stop Sequani Animal Testing campaign, which targeted the company, its staff and any associated business.

At its height, the operation involved 120 investigators drawn from a range of national police agencies and was advised throughout by the Crown Prosecution Service.

Thirteen suspects were arrested in a series of raids across Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Gloucestershire and West Midlands in May last year.

At the trial, more than 100 witnesses backed up evidence and intelligence uncovered by Tornado, including telephone and internet traffic.

Speaking after the case, Det Insp David Williams, of Herefordshire CID, described the Sequani campaign. “They used a range of techniques to interfere with the day-to-day running of Sequani and its business partners, including protests and demonstrations, harassment and intimidation,” he said.

The actions, he added, had a “significant effect” on the businesses involved and a large number of individuals had suffered. DI Williams praised the “considerable courage” it took for most of them to come to court.

In a statement issued after the case, Sequani said it supported legitimate animal welfare concerns and law-abiding groups that represent them.

Sequani confirmed that it carried out research on animals as a “small but vital” part of developing new human and veterinary medicines – and only when no alternative was available.