Federal prosecutors in Belgium have charged Scientology's operation there and two leading executives with fraud, extortion and other offences. And it looks like they have learned from the Paris convictions.
It took a few years, but the wheels appear to be moving in Belgium.
Federal prosecutors have charged the Church of Scientology there with a range of offences, more than four years after police raided their Brussels offices. Two senior executives with the movement have also been charged.
This is the list of charges, according to Belgian media reports:
- illegal practice of medicine
- forgery and use of false documents
- violation of privacy
- criminal organisation
The investigation sprang out of a complaint lodged in 2008 by Actiris, the Brussels regional employment office. A number of job seekers had complained that Scientology was using fake job offers to try to recruit people into the movement.
Belgian broadcaster RTBF on Friday ran an interview with Chaida Moussaoui, who had answered one such ad. It read: Non-profit seeks administrative assistant – training provided, no experience necessary.
|The Scientology job ad (RTBF December 28 report)|
While, it looked like a paid job, she quickly realized that something was wrong. “They were speaking more in terms of becoming a member, of adopting their way of seeing things...,” she said.
“I can't tell you it by heart, I read it in 30 seconds, but it was more of a contract,...” she added. A contract for two and a half years to five years – to work as an unpaid volunteer.
The complaint also referred to a poster on the window of the Scientology: “We're hiring!” it read. But once again, this turned out to be for unpaid volunteer work.1
On April 11, 2008, police raided Scientology's Brussels offices in Uccle, a leafy, up-market suburb of the Belgian capital.
Over the next day or two they sealed off access to the offices and carted off piles of documents.
It was investigating magistrate Michel Claise who had ordered the raids, and within a day or two he had charged the Scientology organisation with fraud.2
Now, more than four years on, according to Friday's reports in two Belgian papers, the Flemish-language De Tijd (Time) and the French-language daily L'Echo, federal prosecutors have taken up the baton.3
Their list of charges appears to build on Claise's initial approach. Presumably the extra charges spring from some of the documents seized during the 2008 raid.
The French connection
Claise and the prosecutors appear to be on the same page – which means they are off to a better start than the French case that came to court in 2009.
That case eventually ended in convictions not just for individual Scientologists but for two Scientology organisations in France. It started rather less auspiciously however.
As the movement's defence lawyers pointed out on more than one occasion, initially, the prosecutors office did not even want to press charges in the case.4
It was left to investigating magistrate Jean-Christophe Hullin to press ahead regardless and bring the case to trial. And at that point the two prosecutors assigned to the case, Maud Morel-Coujard and Nicolas Baïetto, pursued it with a vengeance.5
That trial led to the conviction of several Scientologists on a number of charges – but more importantly of two of its French organisations for organised fraud.
The sentences, together with heavy fines, were confirmed on appeal in February of this year.6
The French prosecutors had asked for the two Scientology organisations to be dissolved under what they thought were the penalties provided under a law punishing organisations convicted of fraud.
But that option, it turned out, had been accidentally removed from the statute books less than two weeks before the first trial started.
The news of that change, when it broke in September 2009, created quite a storm at the time as well as some fairly feverish speculation. Nobody however was ever able to prove that this was anything more than an unfortunate error – a cock-up rather than a conspiracy.7
But a conviction is a conviction, whatever the bumps in the road: and the Paris judgment broke new ground in France.
After the appeal court convictions in February, Maître Olivier Morice, for the French counter-cult group UNADFI, spelled out its significance to reporters gathered outside the courtroom.
“It is the first time in France that Scientology has been convicted as an organisation for organised fraud,” he said.
“I think that we are at the beginning of other key decisions against Scientology, which could lead to its banning, or its dissolution,” he added.
And he made it clear he was aware of other investigations in the pipeline in other countries –
The original Belgian case
Comparing the two cases, one cannot help thinking that Belgium is following in the footsteps of the French investigation.
As I reported in February, after the French appeal court ruling, security specialist Arnaud Palisson
took time on his blog, Rapports Minoritaires, to express some satisfaction.
Palisson, a former intelligence specialist with the French police, argued that the convictions vindicated his own work on how to tackle Scientology's criminal excesses.8
Palisson's doctoral thesis had set out what he thought was the best way to build a criminal case against Scientology, systematically explaining how their core practices violated various laws.
Their belief system did not interest him: he was even happy to concede the point that Scientology was a religion – not something every critic of the movement would be comfortable with.
He focussed instead on their practices: not the creed then, but the deed.
In Paris, the court took much the same line. The lawyers, the prosecutors and the judges were all at pains to stress that they were not there to challenge Scientology's beliefs, its religious freedoms – despite the defendants' claimed the contrary.
They were there to determine if its actions infringed the law.
The indictment, trials and convictions in the Paris case followed the lines set out in Palisson's work.
And in his February posting Palisson mentions in passing that he passed on his thesis to a magistrate investigating Scientology in Belgium.9
What is not clear however, is whether he is talking about Claise or whoever handled an even earlier investigation, dating back more than a decade earlier.
For there is another Belgian case concerning Scientology, this one launched in 1997.
Not unlike the more recent indictment, in other words.
This earlier case however, got bogged down in the legal limbo of the Chambre de Conseil, a federal legal office that can intervene in investigations to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to bring charges.
Given that the events in this case date back more than 15 years, the chances of getting convictions must inevitably, be slimmer.
There has been speculation however that the two cases might in the end be merged into one.
The prosecutors office has made no comment on that question – and has said nothing in response to Friday's media reports on the indictments in Claise's investigation.
One thing looks certain though: 2013 just got a whole lot more interesting.
Update: Arnaud Palisson replied to my inquiry as to whom he sent his thesis in Belgium. Here is what he had to say.
“When I made my presentation to the National School of Magistrates in Paris in October 2002, an investigator from the Belgian gendarmerie came to find me in the hall to tell me he was working for an investigating magistrate who was instructing a Scientology, and that he would be very interested in obtaining a copy of my thesis. I sent it on to him by email a little after.
“I saw this gendarme a few months later and he assured me that my thesis had become the document of reference in his affair – which explains that he had directed his investigation to fraud (by individual and corporate) and the illegal exercise of medicine; Belgian criminal law is actualy every close to French criminal law.”
Palisson confesses he cannot remember the name of the gendarme or the investigating magistrate concerned. But the chronology helps us put the pieces into place.
He was approached in 2002, well before the Claise investigation got started. At that time, the earlier case had been active for five years.
It would seem then, unless there is another case I am not aware of, that the first investigation was informed by Palisson's work.
In any case, Claise is surely aware of his work too: colleagues do tend to consult each other, after all.
1 See here for the RTBF interview. ASBL in French is short for Association sans but lucratif – non-profit association. See also this clip from an English-subtitled Flemish report posted by “mnql1” at Ex-Scientologist Message Board which also features Moussaoui. It shows you the “We're hiring” (On embauche) poster on the window of the Scientology office. As you'll see in this second report, the Scientologist interviewed in this piece actually confirms that they were hiring unpaid volunteers.
9From mnql1's translation at Why We Protest: I forwarded copies of my thesis to two judges. One was Belgian and he was investigating an important Scientology case; the other was French and she was investigating the huge Church of Scientology-Paris Celebrity Centre case (the same case that ended last week at the court of appeal).
From that point on, my thesis never left the desk of the two judges. It also landed on the desk of a Swiss judge a few months later.
I set out my account of what happened to Palisson after his thesis became known in a post earlier this year: “Scientology Cries Foul”.
10 See for example this May 2009 report from Belgium's Le Soir tracking the procedural wrangling in that earlier case; and this February 2012 update published at the time the appeal court confirmed the Paris convictions, published in Belgium's Le Vif magazine (and handily translated from the French at Why We Protest by the ubiquitous mnql1).