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Belgium Prosecuting Scientology as a Criminal Organization [UPDATED]

Oh Belgium, how we love you

Oh Belgium, how we love you

UPDATE: See more analysis from journalist Jonny Jacobsen after the jump. The latest: Jonny’s thoughts on the Belgian investigating magistrate, Michel Claise.

We sure picked a great day to go for a long hike.

Turns out, minutes after we left for our day-long stroll, we received an e-mail from a newspaper editor friend of ours in Ghent, Belgium. He wanted to make sure we had seen a Flemish-language story breaking the news that the Belgian government is going to prosecute the Church of Scientology as a criminal organization.

Twelve hours later, we finally saw our friend’s e-mail. Ah well. Better late than never, anyway.

OK, so you may have already heard elsewhere, but it’s still pretty interesting news…



According to the UK Telegraph, “charges of fraud, illegal medicine, breaches of privacy and extortion have been drawn up against the Church and two senior executives.”

We’ve known for years that officials in Belgium were investigating Scientology, but now, the country seems to be following France’s lead, where questions about whether Scientology is a church or a “sect” were set aside and instead French prosecutors focused on fraudulent behavior in the way Scientology operates.

In February, France’s courts upheld Scientology’s fraud conviction, but the organization has not been outright banned.

In Belgium, prosecutors will be following a similar line, focusing on the way Scientology operates, and trying not to get caught up in definitions like “church” or “cult.”

We just received this report from Jonny Jacobsen, a British journalist based in Paris…

The gist of it is that federal prosecutors have issued indictments to two senior Scientology executives in Belgium — but also the Belgian organisation itself. The charges include fraud, the illegal practice of medicine, breach of privacy and extortion.

Crucially then, the organisation itself is going to have to defend itself from charges that it is a criminal organisation — so the stakes are at least as high as they were in the French trial.

The investigation appears to have sprung from a complaint filed by the Brussels Employment Office. It said it suspected that Scientology’s work contracts, both for volunteers and paid staff, might be forged and fraudulent, both the papers reported.

The organisation was suspected of using fake job offers to try to recruit people.

The move comes after years of investigation following police raids of Scientology’s Brussels offices on April 11, 2008. The investigating magistrate is a Michel Claise.

Neither the prosecutors office nor Scientology has issued a public response so far.

The story appears to have come from both the Flemish-language paper Tijd (Time) and the French-language daily L’Echo (it’s firewalled but has been translated by mnql1 at WWP here).

This is stunning news, but already it’s getting spun out of control a bit. Atlantic Wire put out a story with the salacious headline, “Could Belgium Bring Down Scientology,” which seems a stretch.

Yes, Belgian prosecutors could shut down Scientology…in Belgium. But elsewhere? That seems doubtful.

A fraud conviction in France has had no visible effect on Scientology in the United States — where the church is seriously hurting, but for other reasons.

We also can’t help remembering Spanish prosecutors going after the church in a big way during the late 1980s — and even, at one point, had church president Heber Jentzsch in chains. But if anything that prosecution provided a recruitment boost here in the US, as we recall.

Jonny Jacobsen sent over some more thoughts on this subject…

You’re right: whatever happens in Belgium does not force anyone else’s hand: somebody
over at Atlantic Wire needs to switch to decaf.

And in any case, it’s early days yet: there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip.

As the L’Echo’s article makes clear, this is not the first time Belgium has tried to prosecute
Scientology: the last one was launched in 1997 and has yet to make it to court. It got stuck in
the Chambre de Conseil, a federal legal office that can intervene in an ongoing investigation
to decide whether or not there is sufficient evidence to bring charges.

In this case however, the decision to prosecute appears to have been made: the indictments
have been issued, so perhaps that particular hurdle has been cleared.

As for this case bringing down Scientology in Belgium, I think that’s a little hasty. I’m not even sure
what the maximum penalties are in Belgian law for the offences being alleged.

Even if the nuclear option of dissolution exists (like the one French prosecutors thought they had)
Belgium’s prosecutors may not choose to press for it. You will recall that the French prosecutors
called for the Scientology organisations to be broke up — but that didn’t work out too well for them!

(Here’s the summary of what they were calling for together with an update explaining what went
wrong; and here are their extended arguments in that case, parts one and two.)

Thanks for that, Jonny, and make sure you check out his always thorough blog.

The news from Belgium is exciting, and we have messages out to journalists we know there to see how the news is being received in that country. More information when we can get it.

One final point for now: We have always tried to stay away from the “is it a church or a cult” question, and instead have stressed repeatedly that Scientology should be examined for its practices, not its beliefs. Now, Belgium is getting that part right.

When will the United States government figure it out as well? We broke the news recently that the federal Department of Homeland Security is investigating Scientology, and apparently for similar reasons as the Belgian government — for the way Scientology treats its workers.

When will there be a prosecution here?

UPDATE: More thoughts from Jonny Jacobsen…

The investigating magistrate handling this case, Michel Claise, is a specialist in white-collar crime, so he seems like a good fit for this case. Within days of the 2008 police raids, he had charged Scientology the organisation with fraud.

The indictment reportedly handed down by the federal prosecutors appears to elaborate on that initial move: it rather looks then as if they have followed Claise’s approach to the case, which is encouraging.

In the Paris case, you may recall that French prosecutors did not originally want to pursue the case against Scientology. It was the investigating magistrate who went ahead with it anyway, (though in court the prosecutors got on board with a vengeance).

In this case in Belgium however it does rather look as if the prosecutors and the investigating
magistrate are on the same page.


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