A French court has awarded Scientology damages for delays in the long legal battle that ended in fraud convictions against it last year. But it's not quite the victory they were hoping for.
Scientologists were celebrating this week after a French court awarded the movement damages for delays in the court case that ended in fraud convictions against the organisation last year.
The court acknowledged in part their complaint that the judicial process, in a case that stretches back to a complaint filed in December 1998, had at times been unacceptably slow.
But the sums involved are a far cry from the one million euros they were seeking. And the court rejected their most serious accusation: that the state had committed gross negligence (faute lourde) at the original trial.
Scientology's main grievance centred around the prosecution's call for the two Scientology organisations in the dock to be shut down.
That request, which came during closing arguments at the original 2009 trial, was something of a bombshell at the time and got international coverage.
It later transpired however that this sanction – la dissolution de la personne morale – was not available to the court. Just weeks before the trial began, deputies had voted this measure off the statute books as part of a package of measures.
The then government insisted that this had been an administrative error and the sanction has since been restored – but too late to be applied in this case.
As we reported here at the time, the incident sparked a major row here in France at the time, with Scientology fiercely denying suggestions from some quarters that it might somehow have had a hand in the crucial change to the law.
The Celebrity Centre, one of two Scientology organisations whose conviction for organised fraud was upheld by France's highest court last year, was among the plaintiffs in this latest case.
It was asking for 935,000 euros in all – 900,000 of it for the prosecution's alleged negligence in calling for its dissolution.
Scientologie Espace Librarie (SEL), the other organisation convicted of organised fraud last year, sought 100,000 euros in damages over what it argued were repeated delays in the legal process.
Four of the Scientologists convicted of fraud or the illegal practice of pharmacy in the same trial claimed more modest sums for what they said were unacceptable delays in the case:1
- Alain Rosenberg, former managing director of the Celebrity Centre, asked for 20,000 euros;
- Sabine Jacquart former president of the Celebrity Centre, asked for 45,000 euros;
- François Valli, a former top salesman at the SEL bookshop, who also worked for the Celebrity Centre, asked for 35,500 euros;
- Aline Fabre, who once supervised the Purification Rundown at the Celebrity Centre, asked for 20,000.
While the court found partially in their favour, it did not give them the sums they were looking for.
The four individual plaintiffs received 7,000 euros each; the Celebrity Centre and the SEL bookshops just 3,500.2 The court ordered the state to pick up their legal costs, but did rejected Scientology’s request to have judgment published in the French press.
The Tribunal de Grande Instance de Paris heard arguments in the case on December 4 and handed down its ruling on January 22.
It took only a few paragraphs to dismiss the more serious charge of gross negligence. It was not impressed with the file of press clippings from French and international newspapers that Scientology's lawyers submitted to court.
That the prosecutions's call for the two organisations on trial to be dissolved had received international coverage did not of itself establish that the prosecutor's had been negligent, the court noted.
Lead prosecutor Maud Morel-Coujard dropped the bombshell during closing arguments in the first trial, back in June 15, 2009. What she didn't know was that the law had been changed just weeks earlier, on May 12.
The court ruling noted that the defence lawyers did not appear to know either: they did not, after all, raise the issue during their own closing arguments, which followed that of the prosecutors.3
In any case this week's judgment noted that the court's sentence against the defendants issued in October 2009 had not included the sanction in question. It had preferred to impose hefty fines against the two organisations.
It was difficult then, to see what harm had been done, the judgment concluded, dismissing the claim for gross negligence.
The ruling did accept that there had been unreasonable delays however – though not all of those cited by Scientology in their complaint.
The Scientologists had denounced a 14-year judicial marathon before the case even came to court. But this period had been a busy one, with legal procedures on both sides, the court noted.4
By the time investigation had been completed, nine people were facing charges, a tenth was “a person of interest” and there were four plaintiffs seeking redress (at that stage at least).
Add to that reports from expert witnesses, paperwork generated by search warrants and normal process of an investigation and that added up to a lot of paperwork, the court added: 1,839 individual documes covering 23 volumes in all.
The court did however agree that it had taken too long bring the case to court once the investigation was completed in June 2004.
The trial after all, only opened in May 2009 – at least two years later than it should have, even accounting for the complications of the case.5
And after the initial convictions in October 2009, it took at least a year too long for the trial on appeal to open, the court added. (Proceedings finally got underway in November 2011.)
Eric Roux, one of Scientology’s spokesmen in France, welcomed the ruling in a statement.
“It is a decision that proves the inequitable character of this procedure, as well as the breaches of the fundamental rights of the Scientologists which have marred this affair from the start,” he said.6
Scientology was in the process of formulating a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights over the these convictions, he added.
It remains to be seen however, whether the Strasbourg will even agree to consider it.
1 Valli was convicted of fraud. Fabre was convicted of the illegal practice of pharmacy over the massive doses of vitamins used in the Purification Rundown. Rosenberg and Jacquart were convicted of both offences. For full details see the summary of the final judgment here.
2 SEL, the judgment noted in passing, had provided no evidence to support its claim that it had suffered financially from the legal delays.
3 In fact, Patrick Maisonneuve, Scientology's lead lawyer at the original trial, has told news weekly Le Point that while he knew the law had been changed, he did not see it was his job to tip off the court to the prosecutor's mistake. Maisonneuve told Le Point: “We had decided not to raise this question because we were pleading for release and not for (a lighter) sentence. We didn't want to make this public until the judgment.”“La Scientologie se savait Intouchable” Le Point (October 27, 2009).
News of the change in the law broke in mid-September after the lawyer for counter-cult group UNADFI Olivier Morice tipped off Georges Fenech at the government's cult watchdog MIVILUDES. He went public in September 2009, so the court had plenty of notice before it handed down its verdicts and sentences the following month – assuming they hadn't already spotted the problem. See “The Great Escape?”, elsewhere at this site.
4 Scientologist Aline Fabre had written to the court complaining about the time the investigation was taking, the judgment noted: but she had not been able to indicate any point during that period when the case had actually been dormant, with no party on either side taking any action.
5 The ruling acknowledged the complications caused by the fact that the prosecutor's office announced in September 2006 that it did not want to go ahead with the case while the investigating magistrate decided to take it to court anyway. It recognised too that a new investigating magistrate appointed to the case needed time to read up on it. Nevertheless, both the prosecutors and the investigating magistrates were found at different stages to have taken longer than they should have to move the case forward.
6 "Condamnation de l'Etat Français”, posted on January 22, the day the judgment was issued, both at Scientology's PR website and elsewhere.