Judge throws out Scientology case
A Belgian court on Friday threw out the case against the Church of Scientology Belgium and 12 defendants in a judgment that amounted to stunning indictment of the prosecutor’s work.
Judge Yves Régimont took just three and half hours to read out a judgment many observers had been expecting to last all day. He rejected all the charges on a range of procedural grounds.
But most damaging for the prosecutor’s office, the judge criticised what he saw as a lack of objectivity in his approach. It brought an end to a criminal investigation of events dating back nearly 20 years.
Prosecutor Christophe Caliman had presented a range of charges against 12 individual defendants and two organisations: the Church of Scientology Belgium and Scientology’s European Office for Public Affairs and Human Rights.
He dropped the charges against the latter during the trial, but was still asking for the dissolution of the Church of Scientology, which he accused of criminal organisation.
But Judge Régimont said the prosecutor had failed to show that the Brussels-based church was the culprit. “If there was a criminal organization, it was certainly not the Church of Scientology Belgium, because it was subordinate to the organization in Copenhagen,” he added.
In his ruling, Judge Régimont said the prosecutor had taken aim not at the individual defendants but the Church of Scientology as a whole. And he was scathing in his assessment of the way he had prepared his case.
The judge threw out some charges because documents submitted to the prosecutor’s office by two of the defendants had been lost. Charges against many other defendants fell because the date for them to be prosecuted had expired.
But he also referred to fatal gaps and imprecisions in the indictment. One defendant for example, was accused of offences committed in Belgium at a time when she was still working abroad.
Thus the court was confronted with contradictory, incomplete, even non-existent information on when the alleged offences were supposed to have been committed, he argued.
It was not good enough for the prosecutor to bring 120 boxes of documents to the courtroom – with another 300 back in the evidence room – and leave it to the court to determine who had done what and when.
Nor was it acceptable that the judge had taken expert reports from the successful French prosecution of Scientologists in Lyon back in 1996-7 and tried to transplant them willy-nilly into the Belgian case.
Caliman, who had handled this case for nearly 19 years, sat stony-faced throughout the judgment.
One would not prosecute a paedophile priest on the basis of what the Bible said, the judge argued
The judge did not rule out that some aspects of Scientology’s philosophy might present a danger to some more vulnerable people, as certain elements in the case seemed to suggest.
But the court, he said, could only judge specific offences alleged against the defendants – not the offences presumed to be contained in the teachings and writings of Hubbard and Scientology.
And what had become clear was that the defendants had been targeted simply because they were Scientologists – not something they had ever tried to hide. But before being confronted with the facts alleged against them, they were first expected to defend the contents of their beliefs.
By assuming that the criminal intent was to be found in the writings of Scientology, the prosecutor effectively put the onus on the defendants to prove their innocence, when it should have been the other way round.
One would not prosecute a paedophile priest on the basis of what the Bible said, he argued; nor a terrorist on the basis of the contents of the Koran.
Caliman’s closing arguments to the court had only crystallised the judge’s doubts about the case. Packed with references to Scientology documents, it set out to show the criminal design in the doctrine that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard promoted.
“In this context, the defendants were thus presented as instruments to permit the realisation of what were considered the criminal ends of Scientology,” said the judge.
For the prosecutor, this was not so much the trial of the defendants before the court, but mainly “the trial of Scientology, in the doctrinal sense of the term”.
At the beginning of his judgment, the judge rejected many of the defence arguments presented to the court, sometimes in fairly blunt terms. But his ruling was nevertheless a vindication of their overall approach.
During eight days of closing arguments, they spent at least the first three on mainly procedural issues, many of them were eventually accepted, to some degree at least, by the judge.
Maître Pierre Monville, in his closing arguments, had said it was almost as if the prosecutor had gone after Scientology, tacking on the defendants as an afterthought. It was more like a crusade than a prosecution, he added.
That found an echo in Friday's ruling and he welcomed the judgment.
The prosecutor had focussed too much on Hubbard’s writings and not enough on the facts of the case, he told Byline. “The judge was very severe with the prosecutor,” he said.
“We hope that the prosecutor will draw the right conclusions from this debacle – for it is a debacle,” he added. The prosecutor’s heavy-handed, heavily mediatised approach had left its mark on the defendants but had proved ineffective.
“These people were harassed because they were Scientologists,” he said.
“That puts an end to 20-year assault on our beliefs, and it is a relief,” said Scientology’s spokesman Eric Roux
Maître Xavier Magnée, one of the most senior lawyers on the defense team, also found some of his thinking echoed in Friday’s judgment. He had argued that it was not for the court to pass judgment on the contents of Scientology’s belief system.
On Friday, he welcomed the ruling as a victory for freedom of belief.
“The accused emerge from four years of suffering and judicial persecution and it is only justice the ruling that we have had today,” he told Byline.
“It is a fine victory for freedom of expression, for freedom of belief and the end of a long crusade. But the feeling is one of relief and there is no time for complacency or for celebrating. We are emerging from a nightmare,” he added.
During the trial, he admitted, they had had the feeling that the Church was heading for a conviction because of all the preconceptions that the prosecutor had brought to the case, some of which, he said, had left him speechless.
“This is perhaps the first time in the history of Belgium that we put a religion on trial,” he added.
But the judgment had worldwide importance because it rejected the idea that someone’s ideology could be considered of itself a criminal offence.
Scientology spokesman Eric Roux told reporters: “The court is saying today that the charges were based on prejudices against the religious philosophy of the Church of Scientology rather than on the facts, because there were no facts.
“That puts an end to a 20-year assault on our beliefs, and it is a relief.”
The case was a composite of two separate investigations, one of which dated back as far as 1997. The first was launched after complaints from former members of Scientology.
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 trying to recruit new members.
Palais de justice de Bruxelles, facade, entrée principale. Minh-Son Images, Creative Commons licence.