Acquittal of the Belgian Scientologists: a note

The background

In the roundup for 13 March we mentioned briefly that on 11 March the Tribunal de Première Instance Francophone de Bruxelles had thrown out criminal charges against the Belgian branch of the Church of Scientology, the European Bureau for Human Rights (a Brussels offshoot of the US headquarters of the Church) and eleven of their members. The charges were based on an investigation that had begun in 1997.

The charges

There were two conjoined cases before the Tribunal Correctionnel: Cause I: FD 20.99.3/08 (BR 20.98.1761/09) and Cause II: FD 77.98.17/06 (BR 77.99.503/97). In Cause I the defendants were charged that, within the judicial district of Brussels and Mechelen, jointly or severally:

a. they had committed crimes directly or cooperated in their commission;

b. they had prepared for the execution of crimes or torts/delicts that could not have be committed without their assistance; and

c. by gifts, promises, threats, abuse of authority or power, scheming or contrivance, they had directly given rise to those crimes or torts/delicts.

In Cause II (which was chronologically anterior to Cause I) the defendants were charged with similar offences in relation to activities “within the judicial district of Brussels, elsewhere in the Kingdom and abroad”.

Proceedings in Cause II began when in 1997 one of the parties to the prosecution laid an information against the leaders of the Church with juge d’instruction Van Espen, alleging fraud and breach of trust. Proceedings in Cause I began in 2008 before juge d’instruction Claise. (Probably the nearest UK equivalent to a Belgian or French juge d’instruction is a procurator fiscal in Scotland.) The allegations on which the charges were founded included  operating a criminal organisation, fraud, illegal practice of medicine, violation of privacy, profiteering and extortion.

The judgment

The presiding judge, M Yves Régimont, was of opinion that the prosecution case was not so much about the alleged offending conduct of each of the defendants but, rather, about the ideology or philosophy of Ron Hubbard’s teachings on Scientology. Much of the prosecution case had been devoted to reading (sometimes very long) passages from the works of Mr Hubbard in order to demonstrate the criminal purposes contained in the doctrines that he promoted [147]. M Régimont also noted the prosecution’s reliance on a previous prosecution in Lyon (not, it should be noted, a prosecution within Belgian jurisdiction) in which 18 of the 23 defendants had been acquitted [148]. Without calling into question the decisions in the French case, it was obvious that it had to be considered with great caution, a fortiori when issues were raised (fraud and breach of the law on pricing in particular) that related to the allegations against the defendants in the present case [148].

While the possibility that Scientology could present a danger to individuals who were suggestible or easily influenced could certainly not be ruled out, the court was called upon to judge the concrete facts of which it was seised in the instant case and the alleged actions of the defendants: it was not examining alleged offences contained in the teachings and writings of Scientology in general or of L Ron Hubbard in particular:

« S’il ne peut certainement pas être exclu que la philosophie scientologue puisse presenter, dans son articulation et sa manifestation, un certain danger pour des individus plus faibles, influençables ou peu attentifs, de nombreux éléments du dossier repressif semblant aller en ce sens, le tribunal est appelé à juger les faits concrets dont il a été saisi, et qui auraient été commis par les prévenus et non de présumées infractions qui seraient contenues dans les enseignements et écrits de la Scientologie, de Monsieur Ron Hubbard ou d’autres penseurs scientologues » [149].

The defendants in the present case were being prosecuted primarily because they were followers of Scientology. While the prosecution was free to conduct the case in the way it judged most effective, the fact remained that, a priori, the terms in which the allegations had been framed in court were likely to oblige the defendants to defend the doctrines to which they adhered even before they could consider their defence to the concrete charges [150]. It was as if a Catholic priest accused of paedophilia or financial irregularities, or an Muslim accused of a terrorist offence, were to be judged on the basis of an examination of the teachings of the Bible or the Quran and obliged to demonstrate the opposite. Such a requirement would amount to imposing on the defendants an obligation to prove their innocence, with the prosecution merely demonstrating that the character of incitement to commit the offence contained in the scriptures of Scientology was sufficient evidence on which to presume their guilt [150]. It was clear that the prosecution’s pleadings, whether written or oral, were incomplete and imprecise [150].

At [157] M Régimont delivered the killer blow, concluding that the prosecution had proceeded on the basis of a presumption of guilt and had been totally without objectivity:

« C’est clairement de presomption de culpabilité qu’il convient donc de parler ici et d’un manque total d’objectivité. »

The charges were rejected as inadmissible.

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[With thanks to Jonny Jacobsen. References are to page numbers in the judgment: I have not provided a hyperlink to the text because it has not been redacted: Belgian privacy laws are quite strict about revealing the names of defendants who have been acquitted and I would not wish to give offence.]

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Acquittal of the Belgian Scientologists: a note" in Law & Religion UK, 17 March 2016, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2016/03/17/acquittal-of-the-belgian-scientologists-a-note/

2 thoughts on “Acquittal of the Belgian Scientologists: a note

  1. I loath Scientology for the abusive, exploitative, manipulative deception which I believe it to be. I’m not too keen on Catholicism for the same reasons – but this judgement is, I believe, correct.

    Freedom of the individual will carry with it the possibility of the individual making bad decisions as well as good decisions. Believing the obvious fictitious nonsense of Scientology may be a bad choice but there is a limit to the degree that the State can protect the citizen in these matters. Freedom to criticise deceptive, exploitative cults is the only real protection available. Some legislation similar to that protecting investors or consumers might be devised but the cunning, unscrupulous minds profiting from these belief systems will easily find ways to evade such protective legislation – no doubt using the “Freedom of Religion and Belief” principle with which I concur.

    Alan Rogers

    • I find most ‘New Religious Movements’ pretty bizarre but, having struggled with the French text of the judgment, I, too, think that the court came to the correct conclusion. ‘Freedom of religion’ surely means freedom to get it wrong as much as freedom to get it right. Certainly, the criminal law must always prevail over private judgment – that’s what the rule of law is about – but charges must be founded on facts, not merely on the presumed doctrines of the NRM in question.

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