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Jonny Jacobsen: Reflecting on the first week of Scientology’s criminal trial in Belgium

Jonny_jacobsen_tony_ortega2We asked our man in Paris, Jonny Jacobsen, to give us some thoughts from his notebook about his first week covering Scientology’s criminal trial in Brussels. (That’s him with your proprietor this July.) Here’s his attempt to catch us up on what’s been happening…

Just recovering from the first week’s coverage of the trial and trying to gather my thoughts before diving into the next piece.

The first thing to point out, if it’s not already obvious, is that I’ve opted to go for depth rather than speed in my coverage, which means I’ve only just completed my write-up of the first day’s hearing. When there is breaking news that I think can’t wait, such as the reports from the defense lawyers filed here earlier, I’ll fire off a few paragraphs to Tony in the hope that he can move it out. But inside court, I’m going to stick to my notebook to try to get as much down as possible.

What we are looking at here is 12 individual Scientologists, many of whom occupied senior positions in the Belgium operation, on trial for a range of crimes, including fraud, extortion and criminal association.

More importantly though, we have the Church of Scientology Belgium, and a related organisation, European Office for Public Affairs and Human Rights in the dock. The prosecutor accuses Scientology in Belgium of being a criminal organization, which in theory at least means they could be shut down here. Those are the real stakes in this trial.

This case presents particular challenges because there are no longer any plaintiffs. Unless someone makes a late appearance, no one is going to stand up and tell harrowing stories about what they say they suffered in Scientology. And from a journalist’s point of view, that means there are no sympathetic lawyers willing to share details of the case.


While the plaintiffs may all have settled or withdrawn for other reasons, that does not mean that the prosecutor and the court cannot still use the meat of what they told investigators. And that is what we have been getting glimpses of in court, as the judge confronted each defendant with some of the evidence supporting the charges against them.

There are about a dozen defense lawyers present in the case, all either representing the defendants or parties who might be affected if the movement were to be convicted and stripped of its assets. They are intelligent, witty, and most of them courteous to a fault: but they are not especially disposed to help a journalist. They serve their clients’ interests and not those of the Fourth Estate.

At the 2009 Paris trial, the chief judge made a point of reading summaries of the events described, which gave the press a foothold in the case. It’s going to be trickier here. The judge and the lawyers may be familiar with the files, but you don’t always get a clear picture of what is being discussed in court, so sometimes it’s difficult to fill in the blanks. I’m not exactly flying blind: let’s just say that visibility is sometimes poor. I have had to rely mainly on what I hear in court.

A word about my decision to remove the full names of the defendants. Although I have the legal right to name them, I noticed that the vast majority of news media here had chosen not to. I checked with a couple of colleagues here who have been very generous with their help. They told me that the convention is to wait until people are convicted.

Since the real issue here is the organization and not the individuals, I decided to respect local practice. My coverage is not about shaming the defendants: I don’t want this to be an online version of putting them in the stocks. The idea is to try to get to the heart of the debate.

The culture in Brussels is more relaxed than in Paris and that extends to the courtroom (up to a point). They let a phalanx of cameras into the courtroom at the start of the trial to take photos and video. The judge and his two assistants came in, sat down, let them get their pictures — then shooed them out of the courtroom. (If anyone tried that in an English court their feet wouldn’t touch the floor.)

Another incident that made me smile yesterday. Friday was the last day before court breaks for a week’s holiday. Well into Friday afternoon’s hearing, when everyone was tired and thinking of the weekend, someone started whistling cheerfully outside the courtroom. It was loud and extremely distracting. I can think of one or two judges who would have sent a police officer out to shut them up. Judge Régimont simply remarked: “Someone’s on holiday already!” which drew a laugh and lightened the atmosphere.

Some more useful details about the Belgian system, which you will have gathered by now is significantly different from the Anglo-American one. The judge does not sit on high, acting as a kind of referee between the prosecution and defense lawyers. It is the role of the judge to tease out the truth by questioning the defendants, testing the evidence he has in the case files against the explanations they offer him.

Judge Yves Régimont has a brisk, conversational style and he is good at putting nervous witnesses at their ease. But if he does not think he is getting a satisfactory explanation he can be relentless in his questioning. He genuinely seems to want to understand, to give the defendants every chance to square what they are telling him with the more troubling picture he says he is getting from the case files.

That is not to say the defense has not suggested, in the most respectful terms, that sometimes he has crossed the line and become too prosecutorial. On more than one occasion one defense lawyer or another has tried to get him to back off a little. More than one defendant has been in tears during testimony, after all.

The judge has expressed some sympathy: But he has also explained that he can do his job one of two ways. He can make a genuine attempt to try to get to the heart of the matter by talking to the defendants in front of him; or he can do things à la Flamande, as he put it: the Flemish way. Apparently that consists of checking the defendant’s identity, asking what they have to say to the charges against them, then moving to the lawyer’s pleading.

So the judge has stuck to his guns and now the defense lawyers concede that, having given the first defendants the chance to explain themselves, he can hardly switch to a more cursory approach. That is just as well from our point of view, because otherwise we would have little idea of the details of the charges until the prosecutor set out his case.

The next court hearing is a week on Monday: so I have until then to write up the three remaining days’ hearings that I haven’t so far tackled.

So the plan is, I’ll file the straight court reporting to Byline and try to file diary pieces over here. Do bear in mind that there is a limit to how much I can comment on the case: I’m here to report it, not heckle from the sidelines. But there is a wealth of material to report and I hope to have us up to date on this week’s events before the next hearing, on Monday November 9.

Thanks for the support: The retweets, the messages (and to my new friend, the proof-reader, for catching the typos: you know who you are). Feel free to leave comments underneath the Byline reports and do try to share it directly from the website into the social media. I have a feeling that the more a story gets shared over the social media, the higher it moves on Byline’s front page. So share early, share often.

— Jonny Jacobsen



We didn’t get a chance to include photos in our book, so we’ve posted them at a dedicated page. Reader Sookie put together a complete index and we’re hosting it here on the website. Copies of the paperback version of ‘The Unbreakable Miss Lovely’ are on sale at Amazon. The Kindle edition is also available, and shipping instantly.

Our book tour is concluded for now. We’ll let you know about future appearances. Previous events: Santa Barbara (5/16), Hollywood (5/17), Orange County (5/17), San Diego (5/20), San Francisco (5/22), New York (6/11), Chicago (6/20), Toronto (6/22), Clearwater (6/28), Washington DC (7/12), Hartford (7/14), Denver (7/17), Dallas (7/20), Houston (7/22), San Antonio (7/24), Austin (7/25), Paris (7/29), London (8/4), Boston (8/24), Phoenix (9/15), Cleveland (9/23), Minneapolis (9/24), Portland (9/27), Seattle (9/28), Vancouver BC (9/29), Sydney (10/23), Melbourne (10/25), Adelaide (10/28), Perth (10/30)


Posted by Tony Ortega on November 1, 2015 at 07:00

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Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of LA attorney and former church member Vance Woodward

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GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice

SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts

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Our Guide to Alex Gibney’s film ‘Going Clear,’ and our pages about its principal figures…
Jason Beghe | Tom DeVocht | Sara Goldberg | Paul Haggis | Mark “Marty” Rathbun | Mike Rinder | Spanky Taylor | Hana Whitfield


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