Jonny’s been all over this case for years at his blog, Infinite Complacency, where he had recently put together a four part series of background leading up to this decision. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). He’s also kept a close watch on the prosecution of the church in Belgium, and was one of the first to report on violence at Scientology’s International Base in California.
Here’s Jonny now…
France’s top court on Wednesday confirmed the conviction of Scientology for organised fraud, according to French media reports.
The ruling, by the Cour de Cassation, effectively ends the legal battle in France, making the convictions definitive, RFI radio and BFMTV reported.
Even before the judgment was handed down, the movement’s lawyers had said that they would take the fight to the European Court of Human Rights if it went against them.
Last year, the appeal court fined two Scientology organisations 400,000 euros and 200,000 respectively.
Scientology was trying to get those sentences quashed and in legal arguments last month tried to portray the convictions as an attack on their religious freedom.
So once again, Scientology claims it’s a religion being denied its freedoms, but France says it’s a fraudulent business and deserves its conviction for wrongdoing.
Will this conviction have an effect in the United States? It already has.
If you look at the way attorneys like Ted Babbitt in Florida, Jeff Harris in Georgia, and Ray Jeffrey in Texas are writing their legal pleadings, it’s clear that they’ve learned something about fending off the “religious freedom” defense — and that may be why they’re having so much recent success when attorneys before them struggled.
UPDATE: See Jonny’s latest update, below, for a full recap on the convictions that were upheld today, including two Scientology organizations and five individuals.
UPDATE: And now, Jonny has Scientology’s official response — see below.
And thanks to Espiando for the suggestion…
More from Jonny…
The events in question date back 15 years, to the late 1990s, but did not come to trial until May 2009.
In October of that year, the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris handed down fines and suspended sentences to six Scientologists and two Scientology organisations on offences ranging from fraud to the illegal practice of pharmacy.
The Association Spirituelle de l’Eglise de Scientologie CC (ASES), the Celebrity Centre, was convicted of organised fraud against two plaintiffs. It was fined 400,000 euros.
Scientology’s network of bookshops, Scientologie Espace Librairie (SEL), was also convicted of organised fraud against the plaintiffs and fined 200,000 euros.
The reason the movement has fought so hard to overturn the convictions was that they targeted not just individuals, but the organisation. The court effectively characterised standard operating procedure in Scientology as fraudulent.
Setting out the key elements of the fraud, the judgment referred to the Scientologists’ constant use of personality tests “devoid of any scientific value and analysed with the sole aim of selling various products and services.”
Attacking the hard-sell techniques used by some of the individual Scientologists convicted of fraud, it quoted extensively from Scientology’s internal documents, including founder L. Ron Hubbard’s policy letters.
The court’s point was that these techniques were not due to the excesses of a few over-zealous individuals but were directed from the top down.
In court and in the judgment itself, Judge Sophie-Hélène Château dismissed as “beyond fanciful” (plus que fantaisiste) attempts by the defendants to translate the English phrase “hard sell” as “taking care of people”.
The court also handed down fines and suspended sentences to some of the defendants for the illegal practice of pharmacy.
This was related to Scientology’s Purification Rundown, the programme devised by Hubbard himself that involves aerobic exercise, long hours in the sauna and massive doses of vitamins.
In court, the defence tried to argue both that the Rundown was a scientifically valid process and, in the context of Scientology, a religious practice in the tradition of purification rituals in other religions.
But one expert witness memorably described it as quackery (“charlatanesque”).
And psychiatrist Daniel Zagury described the way Scientology operated as an abuse of the well-known process of transference, in which the patient becomes dependent on their therapist.
For a full write-up of the original judgment, see this earlier analysis at Infinite Complacency.
Georges Fenech welcomed today’s ruling in a statement posted on his website (During the Sarkozy presidency, he headed up Miviludes, the government’s watchdog on cult-like activities):
“Far from being a violation of their religious freedom as the organisation — of American origin — contends, this decision lifts a veil on practices that are illicity and highly detrimental to the safety of people and their property,” he said.
“The Church of Scientology, if it is convicted again, leaves itself open to being dissolved, pure and simple, which was the sentence that the prosecutor at the original trial had already asked for.
“Even if the court had wanted to apply this sentence, that turned out to be impossible: the relevant law had been modified just weeks before the trial started.
“This inadvertent change, since reversed, provoked a storm of protest at the time, but nobody has been able to prove that this was anything more than an embarrassing mistake.”
Fenech added that the ruling would serve as a useful lesson to anyone tempted in the future by the movement.
Fenech, now a deputy and a senior figure in the right-wing opposition UMP, is a longtime sparring partner of Scientology.
As an investigating magistrate in the 1990s he brought the Lyon case to trial that resulted in several senior Scientologists being convicted on fraud charges.
One defendant was also convicted of homicide involontaire, or manslaughter. He was judged to have put so much pressure one of his followers, Patrice Vic, that he contributed to his suicide.
Vic jumped to his death from his apartment in Lyon in front of his wife.
Jonny just reported to us that the court’s decision is 82 PAGES LONG. He says that’s really rare, and he assumes it has something to do with Scientology announcing that it would take the case on to the European rights court.
This just in from Jonny…
Just had an interesting conversation with Fenech, who was just out of a parliamentary session. He mentioned that several more compaints have been filed against Scientology in France.
He could not give me details but this gives more substance to his remark about Scientology being under threat of being dissolved.
Bear in mind that there is a double-barrelled legal threat to Scientology in France.
First there is the law that mysteriously got changed just before the 2009 trial started.
Though the option of dissolution has now been reinstated, it was not available to the courts in the case as it cannot be applied retroactively.
But of course it could be available for future cases.
Then there is the 2001 About-Picard Law.
This law extends the range of existing laws to cover a broader range of offences, ones that are typically relevant in the context of cult-like activities — such as fraud and the illegal practice of medicine or pharmacy, for example.
A crucial provision of the law is that if an organisation is convicted two times then the court has the option of ordering its dissolution: its not automatic of course, but the option is there.
Since the convictions today confirm that France considers some of the core practices of Scientology amount to fraud, this poses a real problem to the movement.
Fenech pointed me in the direction of where I might get more details on these other complaints against the movement: I’ll be chasing that up when I have a minute.
LATEST UPDATE: Here’s Jonny’s full recap of today’s decision…
Here is how things stand after Wednesday’s ruling.
In 2009, the first court convicted the two Scientology organisations and six Scientologists of offences running from fraud and organised fraud to the illegal exercise of pharmacy.
All six individuals and the two Scientology organisations appealed.
Come the appeal trial however, one woman did not turn up — nor was a lawyer present to defend her — so her original 1,000-euro fine, was confirmed by default.
In February last year, the Paris appeal court, confirmed all the convictions against the appellants, in some cases increasing the penalties. They all took their cases to Cassation.
Today’s judgment from the Cour de Cassation effectively confirms all those sentences, the bulk of the ruling dealing in detail with the flood of procedural and constitutional arguments advanced by the defence.
The court has refused to quash — casser — any of the sentences handed out by the appeal court.
So that leaves us with the following situation.
The Celebrity Centre, a supposedly non-profit association that was raking in the money — Association Spirituelle de l’Eglise de Scientologie CC (ASES) — stands convicted of organised fraud.
It is fined 400,000 euros and ordered to pay for the details of the conviction to be published in several major French newpapers: Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, Le Parisien and Ouest France.
Scientology’s network of bookshops, Scientologie Espace Librarie (SEL), also stands convicted of organised fraud. It has been fined 200,000 euros and ordered to pay for the publication of the conviction in the same newspapers.
The following appeal court convictions and sentences are also confirmed in Cassation:
Alain Rosenberg, the managing director of the Celebrity Centre, was convicted of organised fraud and of complicity in the illegal exercise of pharmacy. He got a two-year suspended prison sentence and 30,000-euro fine.
Didier Michaux, the bookshop’s star salesman, was convicted of organised fraud. He got an 18-month suspended sentence and 20,000-euro fine.
Jean-François Valli, the other bookshop salesman, who also did work for the Celebrity Centre, was convicted of organised fraud. He got an 18-month suspended sentence and a 10,000-euro fine.
The Cour de Cassation also confirmed the heavier sentences the appeal court had handed out to the other two defendants:
Sabine Jacquart was convicted of organised fraud and of complicity in the illegal exercise of pharmacy. She got a two-year suspended sentence and 30,000-euro fine (up from 10 months suspended and a 5,000-euro fine). At the time in question, Jacquart was president of the Celebrity Centre.
Aline Fabre, who supervised the Purification Rundown at the Celebrity Centre, was convicted of the illegal exercise of pharmacy. She was fined 10,000 euros (up from the 2,000-euro fine she got in the original sentence).
The Cour de Cassation only quashed one part of the appeal court ruling: the order for some of those convicted to pay compensation to one of the plaintiffs, Aude-Claire Malton.
As state prosecutor Michel Gauthier had pointed out to the court last month, Malton had written to the appeal court before the trial started to say she was withdrawing from the case as a plaintiff. So that part of the ruling came as no surprise.
The only crumb of comfort for Scientology came in the Cassation ruling dismissing the bid by UNADFI, the counter-cult group, to be admitted as a plaintiff in the case.
Again though, this was no surprise: the lower courts both rejected UNADFI’s bid — but that did not stop UNADFI being represented in court during each stage of the legal process.
And now Scientology responds. Here, once again, is Jonny Jacobsen…
Just looking at Scientology’s official reaction to the ruling: not so much putting on a brave face as trying to transmute lead into gold.
“This ruling is a first victory in the sense that it has definitively rejected the only plaintiff, the UNADFI association, which came to pollute the debates illegally throughout the trial,” says the statement.
It is not hard to understand why Scientology is happy to see the back of UNADFI: they only wish it had come sooner rather than later.
The association’s lawyer, Olivier Morice, was a thorn in their side throughout the first two trials, because when it came to the inner workings of Scientology, he was easily the most knowledgeable lawyer in court.
That’s why the defence tried and failed at both trials to get UNADFI kicked out of court before the trial got underway.
Instead, both the lower courts reserved their ruling on the matter until after the trial, which meant that Morice got full powers to represent UNADFI in court, questioning the defendants and the trial witnesses.
Scientology’s statement also describes today’s ruling against them as “an opportunity.”
Now they can “take the affair to an international jurisdiction, where the judicial debate can take place on the basis of law, far from the pressures of the executive, in a dispassionate space that is sensitive to the respect of fundamental rights.”
As expected then, they are taking the case to the European Court of Human Rights.
The ECHR is “far from the pressures of the executive,” says the statement — a reference to Scientology’s repeated claims that the French authorities were out to get the movement and put undue pressure on the courts to bring in convictions.
France is fifth — out of the 47 countries under the Court’s jurisdiction — in a list of states condemned for the failure to provide fair trials, says Scientology.
After listing some of France’s other judicial failings, the statement finishes off by saying that Scientology has been in France since 1959, where it has tens of thousands of members — and millions across the world.
Full marks for trying then.
Posted by Tony Ortega on October 16, 2013 at 08:20
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