A Belgian court has sent Scientologists and two of the movement's organisations for trial on fraud and other charges: but it is still a long road to the courtroom.
A court in Belgium on Thursday sent two Scientology organisations and 11 Scientologists for trial on fraud and other charges, the Belga news agency reported.
|Two Belgian non-profits targetted|
The Chambre de Conseil had for several months been considering whether two criminal investigations against the movement, one dating back as far as 1997, should go to court.
The cases, now merged into one, involve accusations of fraud, illegal practice of medicine and the non-respect of privacy laws.
One allegation police investigated was over the placing of false job adverts that gave the impression that paid work was available when in fact it was for unpaid work.
Perhaps the most important feature of Thursday's ruling is that it names two Scientology non-profit organisations in Belgium and not just members of the movement.
Prosecutors are going after the Church of Scientology in Belgium and the Brussels-based European Office for Public Affairs and Human Rights.
Since federal prosecutors are characterising Scientology as a criminal organisation, that might mean it could be banned in Belgium if convicted – at least according to Belgian press reports.
The court ordered that the case regarding a 11th Scientologist should be transferred to a separate court because he is an English-speaker.
And it ruled that the statute of limitations for the offences alleged in the case of at least one other Scientologist had expired.
The individuals and the two organisations sent for trial have the right to appeal the Belgian court's decision within 15 days, which they are doing.
A ‘modern inquisition’
Scientology has already issued a statement attacking the ruling and vowing to defend itself.
All those sent for trial have 15 days in which to lodge an appeal and Scientology has already made it clear that it will fight all the way.
“We cannot help but hope that this interminable investigation is nothing less than a modern inquisition and an affront to freedom of religion and the rights of the defence,” said a Scientology statement.
The time the investigation had taken — the earliest of the two dates back to 1997 — showed that the facts were “non-existent” and that the case was “made up of rumours, attributing motives and lies to what the Scientology religion really is,” the statement added.
Scientology should not be treated any differently from other religions, it insisted, concluding that the movement would fight to the very end any “any biased criminal proceedings that violates their basic rights”.
Belgian broadcaster RTBF spoke to lawyers on either side of the case.
Maître Bruno Dayez, who represents some of the plaintiffs, welcomed the fact that the criminal case was being sent for trial.
“It’s already really one point clearly in our favour,” he told Belgian broadcaster RTBF.
As for the rest, even if there are procedural obstacles, we are still entitled to act at the civil level — so even if the case were to collapse on the criminal side that would not mean for all that that I would not pursue compensation for my clients to the end.”
After 17 years of investigation however, Scientology’s lawyers will argue that the case has dragged on too long for it to come to trial.
“It does pose a problem, to have such long proceedings,” Maître Pierre Monville, who represents one of the defendants, told RTBF.
“The infractions stretch back into time and are hidden and so it is difficult to see what someone is being accused of when you go through 20 years in the life of an association,” he added.
The charge sheet, RTBF reported, includes accusations of the illegal practice of medicine; fraud; extortion; false representation; the non-respect of privacy; and criminal organisation.
According to one media report, the ruling was sufficiently well formulated to provoke the admiration of one of the defence lawyers. “Magnifique,” he said after it had been read out in court Thursday morning.
But there is still a way to go before the case gets to trial — if indeed it ever does.
Once the appeals are lodged, it could take months for the higher court to deliver its ruling, Belgian media reported. And if that goes against Scientology, it might even be possible for the defendants to find grounds for a further appeal on a point of law.
This would not be the first time the movement has tried to kill off the case against it.
Scientology has already tried to get the earlier of the two cases involved here thrown out.
Their lawyers argued that prosecutors’ comments to the news media in the years following the launch of the 1997 investigation had prejudiced their right to a fair trial.
After arguing their case in vain in the Belgian courts, they filed a case with the European Court of Human Rights, but the Strasbourg-based court also rejected their complaint, as reported here at the time.
Thursday's ruling in Belgium follows the definitive conviction last year in France of two Scientology organisations – and several Scientologists – for fraud.
And as we have reported here before, there is every sign that Belgian investigators have learned from the approach taken in France.
This report is a revised version of the material filed earlier to Tony Ortega’s site, The Underground Bunker.