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Verdict day in Brussels: What you need to know about Scientology on trial

PalaisDeJustice

 
Verdict now in. Please go to our new story.

A special report from our man in Europe, British journalist Jonny Jacobsen…

A Belgian judge will rule rule today in a case against the Church of Scientology and 12 of its members that could see the organization shut down there.

The Church of Scientology is accused of criminal organization and the prosecutor has called for its dissolution and the maximum 200,000-euro fine. During the trial, the defense team denounced what it said was the bias of both the prosecutor and the investigators.

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Judge Yves Régimont will deliver his verdict at Brussels’ Palais de Justice on the charges against the Church and the individual defendants, who include French, British and Italian nationals.

The offenses listed in the indictment range from the violation of Belgium’s strict privacy and data collection laws, to fraud, extortion, right up to criminal organization. Some defendants also face charges of illegal practice of medicine for their role in administering the Purification Rundown, a controversial program devised by Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, that involves aerobic exercises, long sessions in a sauna and large doses of vitamins and minerals.

The case is a composite of two separate investigations, one of which dates back as far as as 1997.

That first investigation was launched after complaints from former members of Scientology. In September 1999, police in Belgium and French raided not just Scientology premises but the offices of companies run by Scientologists in Belgium and some private homes.

Both the church in Belgium and Scientology’s European Office for Public Affairs and Human Rights, which lobbies European institutions and promotes Scientology’s social action campaigns, were charged. But in his closing arguments last November, prosecutor Christophe Caliman dropped proceedings against the European Office.

Nevertheless, several former senior officials who worked at the Office and for years acted as the public face of Scientology still face charges.

The second investigation was launched in 2008 after Actiris, the Brussels regional employment office, filed a complaint. The agency accused Scientology of having placed job ads when in fact they were not offering paid work but were trying to recruit new members.

More than 100 of those who applied for the jobs subsequently filed complaints. Some of them told investigators they had been signed up as members of the Church when they thought they were signing job contracts.

During a trial that lasted several weeks, Judge Yves Régimont clashed with defense lawyers who objected to the way he questioned the defendants. More than one of them was reduced to tears during their time on the stand.

The trial had to be delayed for two weeks after the prosecutor Caliman was taken ill. That happened as Scientology’s lawyers filed a complaint against him with the UN Special Rapporteur for International Religious Freedom alleging “egregious human rights violations.”

Caliman returned in time to present his closing arguments, but was criticized by the judge for running over his allotted time by half a day. The judge also repeatedly pressed him to show exactly how specific charges related to each of the defendants.

In his closing arguments, the prosecutor called for suspended sentences of between six and 20 months and fines running from 500 to 1,500 euros against the 12 defendants.

During two weeks of closing arguments the defense team denounced the prosecutor and the investigators for what they said was their bias, their failure to follow proper procedure, and their cavalier treatment of some of the defendants. They also criticized the unacceptable length of time it had taken to get the case to court.

The police raids and the way the subsequent investigations were carried out amounted to judicial harassment, they argued, denouncing the prosecution as religious discrimination. Caliman’s pursuit of Scientology was more like a crusade than a prosecution, said one defense lawyer.

The defendants all occupied senior posts within the Church of Scientology or at the European Office. Seven of them are Belgians, three are French nationals, and an Italian and a British national were also charged. One of the defendants, a French national, was too sick to attend the trial.

The first five days of the trial, which opened on October 26, were taken up with the instruction, during which Judge Régimont questioned the defendants closely.

One after another they resisted his suggestion that the movement seemed to interfere in people’s private lives and was incapable of letting members go when they wanted to leave.

He quizzed several former members of Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs (OSA) as to what its real role was. But they repeatedly denied his suggestion that it operated as a kind of security service for the Church.

There are no plaintiffs left in the long-running case as they have either settled with Scientology or withdrawn for other reasons.

The trial has attracted interest from other countries mainly because of the possibility that the Church itself might be convicted and possibly even banned.

In 2013, France’s top court confirmed the organized fraud convictions of several Scientologists and two Scientology organizations in Paris. The two organizations received fines of 200,000 and 400,000 respectively.

Belga news agency reported Thursday that extra security has been laid on at the Palais de Justice after reports that members of Anonymous planned to disrupt the proceedings.

The report, citing unnamed sources, said the “hackers’ collective” Anonymous made the call online after it was refused the right to demonstrate.

But one activist in Brussels for the judgment tells the Underground Bunker they had made no such call. Chanology France, a Twitter account that speaks for at least some of the activists, issued its own denial.

The Belga report also mentioned that the defense lawyers had received death threats, something we noted at the time.

One feature worth noting about that death-threat letter, which was read out in court by one of the lawyers, is that it was written in a mix of French and Flemish.

That suggests it was written by a Belgian. Most of the former members and Scientology critics present who attended the early days of the trial were from abroad.

— Jonny Jacobsen

Jonny is on the scene at the courtroom today, and will be sending us news of the verdict. Expect a new story at around 8 am New York time.

 
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3D-UnbreakablePosted by Tony Ortega on March 11, 2016 at 04:00

E-mail tips and story ideas to tonyo94 AT gmail DOT com or follow us on Twitter. We post behind-the-scenes updates at our Facebook author page. After every new story we send out an alert to our e-mail list and our FB page.

Our book, The Unbreakable Miss Lovely: How the Church of Scientology tried to destroy Paulette Cooper, is on sale at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions. We’ve posted photographs of Paulette and scenes from her life at a separate location. Reader Sookie put together a complete index. More information about the book, and our 2015 book tour, can also be found at the book’s dedicated page.

Learn about Scientology with our numerous series with experts…

BLOGGING DIANETICS: We read Scientology’s founding text cover to cover with the help of L.A. attorney and former church member Vance Woodward
UP THE BRIDGE: Claire Headley and Bruce Hines train us as Scientologists
GETTING OUR ETHICS IN: Jefferson Hawkins explains Scientology’s system of justice
SCIENTOLOGY MYTHBUSTING: Historian Jon Atack discusses key Scientology concepts

Other links: Shelly Miscavige, ten years gone | The Lisa McPherson story told in real time | The Cathriona White stories | The Leah Remini ‘Knowledge Reports’ | Hear audio of a Scientology excommunication | Scientology’s little day care of horrors | Whatever happened to Steve Fishman? | Felony charges for Scientology’s drug rehab scam | Why Scientology digs bomb-proof vaults in the desert | PZ Myers reads L. Ron Hubbard’s “A History of Man” | Scientology’s Master Spies | Scientology’s Private Dancer | The mystery of the richest Scientologist and his wayward sons | Scientology’s shocking mistreatment of the mentally ill | Scientology boasts about assistance from Google | The Underground Bunker’s Official Theme Song | The Underground Bunker FAQ

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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