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Date set for Belgian Scientology ruling

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Jonny JacobsenBrussels
Date set for Belgian Scientology ruling
Judgment in the Belgian trial of Scientology will be delivered in three months' time, the judge announced Friday.

Scientology’s Belgian church and 12 individuals on trial on charges ranging from extortion to the illegal practice of medicine will learn their fate on March 11.

President of the court Yves Régimont announced the date after the final day of legal arguments Friday at the Palais de Justice in Brussels.

The prosecutor, Christophe Caliman, confirmed Friday he wanted the dissolution of the Church of Scientology Belgium.

But the trial hearings closed after two weeks of defence arguments in which the impartiality of the prosecutor and his investigators were repeatedly called into question.

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

He pressed them on why the movement seemed to interfere in people’s private lives and why, if someone wanted to leave, they did not just let them go.

While he generally handled his exchanges with the lawyers and defendants with good humour he could be relentless about getting answers to what he saw were the key points.

Some of the defendants struggled to answer his questions, some were reduced to tears and the judge clashed more than once with the defence lawyers over the manner in which he was choosing to conduct proccedings.

Caliman returned from two weeks' sick leave to deliver his much-anticipated closing arguments on November 24.

While he called for the dissolution of the Church of Scientology Belgium and a fine of 200,000 euros, he asked for only minor fines and suspended sentences against the individual defendants.

But despite constant reminders from the judge of the timetable and regular protests from the defence, his arguments ran to a day and a half instead of the agreed day.

Over the following two weeks, defence lawyers lined up to attack the prosecutor’s case on both procedural grounds and the facts of the case.

They 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 criticised his failure to detail how the exactly the charges applied to their clients; and the unacceptable length of time it had taken for the case to get to court.

The prosecutor Christophe Caliman was permitted a brief reply Friday morning.

The Church and its members, he said, followed directives set down by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard that led them to commit fraud during recruitment. That included relentless hard-sell tactics, set out and approved in Hubbard’s policy letters.

Auditing, Scientology’s counselling system, when members share intimate secrets, was one of several means of controlling Scientologists, said Caliman. The extortion element of the charge came in the way Scientology’s ethics, or disciplinary system, was used to apply pressure on members, said Caliman.

It took its most brutal form in the threat of being declared “suppressive” and cast out of Scientology, he added. Ex-members had told investigators it had taken them years to recover after being declared "suppressive" and expelled from Scientology.

But defence lawyers made it clear in the afternoon’s closing statements that their objections remained unanswered.

Maître Pascal Vanderveeren, the Church’s chief counsel, objected to the way the prosecutor referred to the “robotisation” of Scientologists which dehumanized them. He paid tribute to the “extraordinary serenity” with which Scientologists had defended themselves during the trial.

But the prosecutor was “totally impermeable” to that reality, he said.

He reminded the court that this trial was taking place in a religious context: the charge of criminal organisation, which should be reserved for exceptional circumstances, was completely inappropriate, he said.

“Why is there not any justification?” he asked of the criminal organisation charge. “I thought perhaps that after having heard everything he had heard, the ministère public would give a more detailed explanation of his position.”

But the prosecutor’s final bid to save the charge of criminal organisation, “a final bid for clarity”, had come to nothing, he said.

"I am a Scientologist and proud to be."

The final word was given the defendants themselves.

Marc B, the eldest of the defendants, expressed his satisfaction that his religion had had a chance to express its point of view in court. He returned home hopeful, he said.

Vincent G referred to the persecution of the Christians 2,000 years ago. “At the time their methods were brutal, but at least they were direct,” he added. He thanked the lawyers for having re-established the truth. “I am a Scientologist and proud to be,” he declared.

Martin W. said that for at least 20 years he had been living under a cloud because of this case. “It is clear that it is built on prejudice, bias and discrimination,” he said.

“And when the prosecutor speaks of us being ‘robots’ – as we have heard many times – that to me is a very clear indication of prejudice.”

Outside the courtroom, Maître Vanderveeren was cheered and applauded after making a brief speech to the Scientologists and his fellow lawyers.

You can find extended coverage of the trial over at the Exclusive section of my site: I'll be adding to it over the coming weeks and hope to have a comprehensive account of the trial completed before the March 11 ruling.

Palais de justice de Bruxelles, facade, entrée principale. Minh-Son Images, Creative Commons licence.

#Belgium, #Scientology, #Prosecution, #Defence, #Religion, #Legal arguments