Crowdfunded Journalism

Missing Documents

Jonny Jacobsen photo
Jonny JacobsenBrussels
Missing Documents
Defence lawyers in the Belgian trial of Scientology raised the question of documents presented to the prosecutor but missing from the court's files.

Myriam Z.* had been on the stand for a good couple of hours, during which Judge Yves Régimont had questioned her closely about both sides of the case.

She was the only individual defendant to have been charged in connection with both of the investigations that had been folded into this prosecution.

As quickly as she had answered one question, the judge confronted her with accounts from former plaintiffs that often contradicted her version. As the morning wore on, she seemed increasingly to be on the back-foot. (1)

Soon however, the defence would get a chance to redress the balance.

First, the judge turned to the prosecutor, Jean-Pascal Thoreau. Did he have any questions? He did not.

Thoreau, by his own admission, was really only present to provide back-up to his colleague, Christophe Caliman, who had followed the case from the beginning. But Caliman, as Thoreau had announced to the court at the start of proceedings that morning, was absent, sick. He was still trying to find out how serious it was. (2)

So the judge gave the floor to Myriam’s lawyer, Maître Johan Scheers.

Maître Scheers starting by returning to the issue of refunds, something the judge had asked her about earlier. She had explained that she had handled refunds for dissatisfied member and there had been mention of a Monsieur M. who had asked for a refund. Did she know why he had asked for his money back, he asked?

Yes, said Myriam. “He had tax problems, and I did the necessary to get his money refunded from all the churches, because normally he had to go to them.

“The first time I met him was in the office with his lawyer, and he refused the money. He was in touch with the police. Monsieur Lesciauskas [the chief investigator] had insisted that he file a complaint.”

And were there many such requests?

“There were certainly not a lot of requests,” said Myriam. Generally, things went well.

“I would like to say something about those jobs,” she added, referring to the affair of the job adverts about which she had just been questioned closely by the judge.  (The main thrust of the original complaint was that the original ads had given the impression that paid work was on offer.)

“Mme V. and I intervened several times to correct mistakes and nobody came to complain to me," said Myriam.

“My aim has always been to inform people so that they knew where they were and what it was they were about to do. There were always a lot of people who left: that is normal in voluntary work.”

“But you had to sign on for two and a half years,” said Judge Régimont. He appeared to be referring to the staff contracts.

“But people were free to leave when they wanted.” said Myriam.

“Two and a half years,” the judge repeated.

“If people didn’t want to stay, they didn’t,” said Myriam.

Maître Scheers stepped in again. He asked about the BZ family, who had filed a complaint in the original investigation. Earlier in the trial, the judge had questioned another defendant, Hilde N. about their grievances. (She had suggested that, at least for some matters, he might be better advised asking Myriam.)

Myriam said she had only seen them from time to time; that when they had asked for a refund, she had not heard about it at the time; that she had learned subsequently that their request had been refused.

Her lawyer also tackled her failure on occasion to answer precise questions during the police investigation. He wanted to give her a chance to explain.

“Sometimes people ask you questions, such as who was a member of the association between one date and another and I can’t answer,” said Myriam. So she had asked at the time if she could answer in writing. Accordingly, they had submitted a number of documents to correct false information.

But these documents had not made it into the case files, she added.

That rang a bell with Judge Régimont. He thought he recalled references to the documents in question in some of the case files.

For Scientology, Maître Vanderveeren seemed persuaded that some documents presented to the prosecutor were indeed important. “But these are not available to you,” he told the judge.

Maître Scheers also suggested that there might be some confusion over her role in the Church of Scientology at the time: while she had been Director of Special Affairs, she was not director of the Church at the time, but its president.

The defendant was welcome to try to clear this up, said the judge, but he had been astonished to hear her say that the president did not handle the day-to-day running of the Church, when earlier she had said the opposite in relation to a previous holder of the post (fellow defendant Vincent G.).

The defence lawyers tried to parse this for a while. Myriam’s account had not struck them the same way and they were clearly anxious that the judge not read too much into what he thought were discrepancies in her testimony.

But they were also concerned that certain documents relating to the prosecutor’s questioning of Myriam client did not appear in the file. Maître Pascal Vanderveeren, the lawyer for the Church of Scientology itself, intervened on that matter.

Thoreau, for the prosecution, asked the defendant if these interviews with the prosecutor has happened spontaneously or had she been arrested.

On her own initiative, said Myriam: “Because we thought that there were things in the file that we should correct.”

“If someone comes of their own initiative, that perhaps explains why there was no written trace,” Thoreau suggested.

Judge Régimont had the clerk make a formal note. “Mme Z. explains that she met on her own initiative with the prosecutor handling the file, Monsieur Caliman, and that she gave him documents to point errors she said were in the file: things that were not correct about the religion of Scientology.”

So were these documents in the case files, the judge asked? It was not clear.

Maître Quentin Wauters, the lawyer for another defendant, Marc B., stepped forward to say that his client too had, at his own initiative, gone to the prosecutor to give him documents relating to the case. At Wauters’ request, the judge had the clerk note that too.

And were these documents in the file, the judge asked?

Another defence lawyer, Maître Cedric Vergauwen, stepped forward to say that while prosecutor Caliman had at some point talked about certain documents having been found, that rather suggested that at some point they had been lost.

Thoreau bristled: what kind of files were we talking about here? If it was just a few books, that was one thing, he said (but if it was something that actually mattered, that was another, he seemed to be implying).

He wanted some kind of indication that if there was something missing, it actually had a bearing on key issues.

Maître Vanderveeren seemed persuaded that the documents that Marc B. had presented to the prosecutor were indeed important. “But these are not available to you,” he told the judge. It was an issue he was to return to in his closing arguments.

Further discussion only seemed to confused matters, with one defence lawyer intervening when the judge appeared to mistake one set of documents for another. Certainly, it was not always clear which set was being discussed.

All this time, Myriam Z. stood ready to answer further questions, but by now the debate had moved from her to technical matters. The court broke up for lunch and she was able to stand down.

Now, there was only one defendant present who had not yet been questioned by the judge. That was the order of business for the afternoon session.

* 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. It seems reasonable to respect that practice.

Photo: “Empty book” by Lionel Allonge, reproduced under a GNU Free Documentation Licence.

1) While all plaintiffs had either settled with Scientology or withdrawn from the case by the time it came to trial, their original statements were still avaialable for the prosecutor to submit to court.

2) Thoreau had told the court that his colleague had taken ill and that he was still waiting for more details. That afternoon, he announced to the court that Caliman was on sick leave and the judge agreed to postpone legal arguments a couple of weeks in the hope that he would be sufficiently recovered to present his closing arguments (he was). See “Prosecutor sick: Belgian Scientology trial delayed” from earlier coverage.

#Scientology, #Belgium, #trial