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Personal Data and the INVEST[igation] files

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Jonny JacobsenBrussels
Personal Data and the INVEST[igation] files
A Scientology executive on trial in Belgium denied his office kept files on those whom the movement considered its enemies.

At the start of the third day of the Belgian trial of Scientology, it was the turn of Fabio A.* to answer the questions put by the judge Yves Régimont.

He was quizzed about a mass mailing to euro-deputies that might have broken Belgium's privacy laws; and he denied a suggestion from the prosecutor that his office collected information on enemies in so-called INVEST files. 

Fabio was perhaps the most senior of the Scientologists so far questioned: a former director of the European Office of Public Affairs and Human Rights – also known as Church of Scientology International – one of the two Scientology organisations charged.

An Italian, he had nevertheless chosen to follow proceedings via an English interpreter and to answer the judge’s questions in English.

He explained to the court that his job as director of the Office was to manage its social and humanitarian programmes and inform the public about Scientology’s good works. He had worked in a similar role for the Church of Scientology in Italy before arriving in Belgium.

The work of the Office included distributing information on the dangers of drugs, promoting human rights and moral values, he said. And while these campaigns were led by Scientology they were mainly offered to outside groups to adopt: both private organisations and governments.

Judge Régimont was puzzled: so where, he asked, did the International Association of Scientologists (IAS) come in? He had quizzed more than one of the defendants about the large sums of money they had paid into the IAS, over and above what they had paid for Scientology goods and services. They had told him it was the IAS that financed the Church’s good works.

Fabio put it this way. “The International Association of Scientologists is an association of members in the sense that it unites members and advances the aims of Scientology – and naturally it raises funds to carry out its humanitarian work; the work that is done by the Church of Scientology.”

Just as the Catholic Church had Caritas to gather funding so the Catholic Church could do its good works, so the Church of Scientology had the IAS, he added.

A useful comparison, the judge noted: so the IAS raised the funds for the Church of Scientology to carry out its projects. “But then I still don’t I still don’t see what role the European Office plays, unless it is carrying out the Church of Scientology’s projects. What is its exact role?” he asked.

They went over it again because, as the judge put it, It was not easy to understand just who was financing what. But finally the picture that emerged was this: the IAS raised the money to give to the Church of Scientology International so it could pay for the publications and run the humanitarian programmes.

Judge Régimont turned to some of the alleged offences that concerned Fabio himself, including criminal organisation and violation of Belgium’s strict privacy laws.

The judge had already questioned at least one defendant on the issue of privacy earlier in the trial about the files Scientology kept on its members. This time it was more about the use of data on people outside the Church.

He raised the issue of a letter sent in early 2004 to Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) to promote a campaign that the European Office had put together for the Church of Scientology.

It emerged that, while these letters had been written mainly in French, a legal note at the bottom had been written in English. Another issue that appeared to be a potential problem was the fact that these letters had been sent from the United States.

Belgium’s privacy laws place clear restrictions not just on the collection of personal data, but how that data may be used and its transfer abroad, as this summary from the country’s Privacy Commission makes clear. According to the indictment, that letter was a violation of Belgium’s privacy laws.

“We were poorly advised.”

Coming from Italy, Fabio A. could perhaps not be expected to know every detail of Belgian law, said the judge: but he must have been surrounded by competent advisors.

“Were you not briefed on the current legislation on this and other matters?” Judge Régimont asked. Yes, he had been, said Fabio.

“Did you not know that there was a law regulating the protection of private life?” asked the judge. Yes he did, in the broad outlines.

“Were you advised by people who were meant to know this kind of legislation better than you?”

“Yes there was a lawyer who advised us on how to proceed with these letters,” said Fabio. “And we followed the advice of this lawyer.”

And did this lawyer not know about the information at the bottom of the letter? Part of the problem appeared to be that the letter to the MEPs had not included certain legally required information – or at least not in French.

“I know Belgium is the capital of Europe, but it’s not certain everyone speaks English,” said the judge.

“Yes,” Fabio acknowledged. “It was a material error that was quickly corrected.”

“But this happened in 2004,” said the judge – years after the relevant legislation had been passed. Surely it followed from this that the issue of privacy would have been raised. Could they not at least have got the language in the letter right?

“Yes,” replied Fabio. “As I said, it was a material error that was quickly corrected.” But as he recalled it, he added, their lawyer had not warned them about this problem.

“So you were poorly advised?” asked the judge.

“Yes, that’s right,” said Fabio. “Yes, if that should have been in French then that was an error and we were poorly advised.” But again, he stressed, they had corrected it as soon as they noticed the error.

“Well, as soon as you were informed,” said the judge. “Because it was not just the information at the bottom but the collection of the information.”

Judge Régimont asked about the mailing list used for the mail shots to the Euro-deputies. Fabio said it had been from a CD-ROM they had bought in Brussels commercially, supplemented with addresses they had found on various websites. “These addresses were in the public domain,” he stressed.”

“So you acquired a CD commercially.” said the judge. He had the clerk note that: Mr. A says that the information concerning the addresses for the letters sent to the MEPs was mainly acquired through the purchase of a CD-ROM in a shop.

“I won’t go so far as asking which shop,” said the judge. “This information didn’t come from the United States?”

No, said Fabio.

“So you bought this information in Brussels, but it wasn’t sent from there,” the judge continued.

“That’s right,” said Fabio. “It was sent from the United States.”

And why was that, the judge wanted to know.

“We sent the information to them,” he said.

And had they kept this information?

“No, we don’t have this now: 11 years have passed,” said Fabio.

But at the time he was questioned about this affair, he had told investigators that the information had been kept for five years, said the judge.

“When did I say that?” asked Fabio, puzzled. This was important because Belgium’s privacy laws also stipulated how long personal data could be kept.

This was what he had told investigators when they had interviewed him in September 2004, the judge told him.

“If it is written, then I must have said it,” replied Fabio, a strange echo of one of Hubbard’s better-known dictums: “If it isn’t written, it isn’t true.” (HCOPL Feb. 9, 1979 “How to defeat Verbal Tech Checklist”)

“But after that,” he added, “I don’t know if it was kept for five years. The only reason we obtained these addresses was in connection with this project.” It had not been their intention to hold on to the data.

The judge had the clerk of the court note that down too: “Monsieur says that the use of this information and addresses was only directed at this specific campaign.”

He denied his office kept files on Scientology’s enemies.

“So if I understand you,” said the judge, “Supposing that there were infractions, it was not intentional: there was no intention to break the law.

That’s right, said Fabio A. It was done in good faith on the advice of a lawyer. “If we had been advised differently, we would have acted accordingly and that is why we acted as we did.”

The judge had the clerk note that down too. Fabio added that he had not been aware at the time that he might be breaking the law.

The judge gave the floor to the prosecutor, Christophe Caliman. He wanted to know more about the lawyer concerned. A little probing established that they had contacted him on their own initiative and that it was not the first time they had used him. But Fabio A. could not remember who had first recommended him.

Then the prosecutor asked about what he called the INVEST files (short for investigation).

What, Caliman asked, was a human rights office doing investigating people? That suggested that they were busy gathering information on their supposed enemies, he said.

“No, we don’t have this kind of data,” said Fabio. He had already explained that the focus of their work was social and humanitarian.

Prosecutor Caliman asked the judge to have that noted by the clerk.

“Monsieur A. says that the European office did not have INVEST files or any other file that would have been devoted to collecting information on ‘enemies’ of the Church of Scientology,” the judge dictated to the clerk.

At his lawyer’s prompting, Fabio offered a little more detail on some of the various international institutions with which the Office worked: they included the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and membership of a number of UN committees. Their links with the European Commission were also excellent, he added.

And did he know anything about Narconon, the prosecutor wanted to know. Narconon is a drug rehabilitation programme run along principles set out by Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard.

Prosecutor Caliman’s point appeared to be that Narconon uses the process known as the Purification Rundown in the religious setting of the Church of Scientology, but in a non-religious, medical context. During his work with all these international groups, he asked, had Fabio promoted the Purification Rundown?

“I don’t especially deal with this programme...,” said Fabio A. “We haven’t particularly worked in this domain in the European office.” The judge had the clerk note that.

Prosecutor Caliman asked several questions too about Fabio A.’s working relationship with another of the defendants, Martin W., who also worked at the Office of Public Affairs and Human Rights.

Fabio A. had already said he was Martin W.’s superior, but from what emerged later, the prosecutor may not have been convinced of that.

Did they see each other day, the prosecutor wanted to know. Was he kept informed of Mr. W.’s activities or were their links relatively distant?

“We worked together,” said Fabio. “But given that Mr. W. is a grown man and perfectly capable, I didn’t have to accompany him like a child. I had perfect confidence in him,” he added. “The work he did in human rights was quite visible.”

“But my question was ‘What was your link?’,” said the prosecutor. “Formal or close?”

“He handled human rights, I ran the office, and so I was regularly informed of what he did,” said Fabio.

The judge had all of that noted, but there was some amusement when, during his dictation, he inadvertently reformulated Fabio A.’s answer: “Mr. W. is an adult and competent in his field and so he did not have to be followed like a little dog –”

Fabio A. corrected him, the judge apologised –

“– didn’t have to followed like a child.”

The court adjourned, before the questioning of the next witness.

* While Belgian law allows me to identify the defendants, most of the news media here choose not to do that. After consulting with local colleagues, I was told that the convention is to wait until the judgment. Some outlets have identified those who were public figures in the Church: I prefer to apply the same role to all those on trial.

See here for the coverage so far.

The photo is part of Vue des galeries autour de la salle des pas perdus du palais de Justice de Bruxellesby Jean Housen under Wikimedia Creative Commons licence.

#Scientology, #Human Rights Office, #Belgium, #INVEST files, #Privacy