The European Court of Human Rights has dismissed a complaint from Scientology against Belgian officials for their comments to the press on an ongoing investigation into the movement.
|ECHR rejects Scientology bid|
Briefly, Scientology was arguing its right to a fair trial had been breached by comments made by prosecutors. The ECHR pointed out that since the trial had not yet taken place, that was a little premature.
The Strasbourg-based court ruled the application inadmissible and that decision is final.
Here is how the ECHR news release summarised the matter.1
Scientology's complaint was over news reports of an investigation that Belgium opened back in 1997 into alleged fraud and embezzlement at the Brussels-registered ASBL Eglise de Scientologie.
Scientology filed a series of five criminal complaints in Belgium against “person or persons unknown”, saying its right to be considered innocent until found guilty had been violated.
This was based on reports in the Belgian press between 1999 and 2007 in which state prosecutors were quoted allegedly making certain accusations against the movement.
The Belgian authorities shelved each one of the complaints.
In 2007, the Belgian prosecutor's office filed charges against 12 individuals and – rather more importantly for the movement – two Scientology organisations.
Scientology went to the court of appeal the same year to argue that the proceedings against it should be thrown out.
Prosecutors' statements to the press had breached the secrecy of the judicial investigation, they said. That violated the principle of the presumption of innocence and thus their chances of a fair trial.
In 2007, Belgium's Court of Appeal, while agreeing to consider their complaint, rejected it: an appeal on points of law was dismissed the following year.
A hearing to set a pretrial timetable for this case was adjourned in 2010 but the Belgian case is still active, said the ECHR statement.
This is not the first time Scientology has gone after an adversary on procedural grounds.
Scientology follows French media coverage of its affairs closely and some news organisations have been caught out.
Eric Roux, the movement's main spokesman in France, reported how Scientology recently won a judgment against France Televisions.2
A piece on its website advertising a documentary on Scientology made the mistake of reporting on the 2009 fraud convictions as if they were definitive.
But “as any fule kno” – at least if they read Tony Ortega's The Underground Bunker – the case is still active.
As we reported for Tony earlier this month, France's higher court, the Cour de Cassation, heard oral arguments on this case on September 8 and will hand down its ruling on October 16.3
The offending piece was a brief item posted on its website promoting a documentary on the movement “La Scientologie, la vérité sur un mensonge” (“Scientology, the truth about a lie”).
This item, reproduced in the appeal court judgment, read:
Founded in 1950 in the United States by Ron H. and rebaptised “Church” in 1954, Scientology – whether it is considered as a “technology of the mind”, a church or a cult – has managed to make its mark on the world in the last 50 years. So what is this “empire”, whose former followers say has certain totalitarian trends and which nevertheless continues to seduce. What are its aims, its practices and its ideology. To unlock the mechanics of Scientology, former and present disciples speak out and show how you can be trapped, body and soul, sometimes with the whole family, children included, in a totally alienating system. This investigative documentary throws a light on the real issues Scientology poses to our world and our time, as the “Church” has just for the first time been convicted in France of organised fraud (Emphasis added)4
While none of this was exactly flattering, it was that last phrase that crossed the line legally.
In France, a conviction cannot be described as definitive until the defendants have exhausted every legal remedy.
France Télévisions knew fine well that Scientology had taken the case to the Cour de Cassation: after all, they had reported on the story at the time.
There is always the possibility that the Cour de Cassation will next month strike down the original convictions against Scientology and so wipe the slate clean – so the broadcaster should have taken the trouble to explain that the case was still active.5
The organisation that actually brought this action was L’Association Spirituelle de l’Eglise de Scientologie CC (ASES): Scientology's Celebrity Centre in Paris and one of the two Scientology bodies convicted in the Paris trial.
The Celebrity Centre's initial complaint was rejected by the civil court in Caen, so it appealed.
But while the appeal court found in its favour, it rejected Scientology's suggestion that the lower court had “unduly favoured” the defendants. And when it came to damages, the court hardly threw the book at the broadcaster.
France Télévisions should not have given the impression that the conviction against Scientology was definitive, it ruled: but the offending piece was a brief item on its website and there was no evidence that it was up for more than a few days.
The court ordered the broadcaster to pay 3,000 euros in damages (about $4,044) and another 3,000 to cover legal costs.
The irony here is that the EHCR seems to have rejected Scientology's claim against Belgium on the same grounds that France Télévisions got caught out: the case is still active.
Here's how the Strasbourg court's English-language press release summarised the ruling, (which itself was handed down in French):
The Court reiterated that it had to ascertain whether proceedings were fair in their entirety.
As there had not yet been any final judgment by the Belgian courts on the relevant “charge”, the part of the application concerning an alleged violation of the right to a fair hearing was premature and therefore had to be dismissed.
The ECHR also found that the evidence submitted of the prosecutors' allegedly prejudicial remarks was inadequate.
There had been no audio or video recording of those statements, nor had they been transcribed in documents emanating from the authorities in question, such as procedural documents or official press releases.
The only evidence produced by the applicant association consisted of press articles for which the relevant journalists were solely responsible, and it was highly possible that those articles did not accurately reflect the nuances of the remarks in question...
Consequently, the Court found that this part of the application was manifestly ill-founded and had to
This rather sounds like the Strasbourg court is telling them to stop messing about – and of course Scientology ought to have known better.
For they know that the ECHR is the court of last resort for most European countries.
They know that a plaintiff must exhaust all legal channels in the country concerned before submitting an application to the Strasbourg court.
And if France's Cour de Cassation throws out Scientology's appeals in the fraud case and the convictions stand, that is where they will take their case next.
But then, as Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard himself wrote:
The DEFENSE of anything is UNTENABLE. The only way to defend anything is to ATTACK, and if you ever forget that, then you will lose every battle you are ever engaged in, whether it is in terms of personal conversation, public debate, or a court of law...
The purpose of the suit is to harass and discourage rather than to win. The law can be used very easily to harass, and enough harassment on somebody who is simply on the thin edge anyway, well knowing that he is not authorized, will generally be sufficient to cause his professional decease. If possible, of course, ruin him utterly.6
They did not quite manage that in either case – but you get the general idea.
This is not, of course, the only case that Belgian prosecutors are developing against Scientology.
As we reported last December – first at The Underground Bunker and then at greater length here – they are also going after them in a separate case on charges of fraud, the illegal practice of medicine, breach of privacy and extortion.
We are still waiting for a court date on that one too.
1 You can download the release here.
2 Eric Roux's report is at his website. Here's an English-language account of this judgment, posted at the site of the European Coordination of Associations and Individuals for Freedom of Conscience, (CAPLC). It describes itself as an NGO that “follows a humanist universal call towards peace, brotherhood and tolerance regarding all human beings”. A brief browse of its contents however suggests it is another lobbying group for Scientology.
3 I'll try to post a more detailed write-up of the arguments presented at the Cour de Cassation before the end of the month.
4 This is my own translation: you can read an alternative translation at the English-language summary referred to in note #1. The full appeal court judgment in French has been posted here.
5 It is worth just noting in passing that the judgment is no reflection on the documentary itself.
6 “A Manual on the Dissemination of Material”, L. Ron Hubbard, March 1955, Ability magazine.