Monday, 26 October 2009

37 ...defending the Celebrity Centre

June 17: The Celebrity Centre should not be convicted on the basis of prejudice and preconceptions against Scientology, lawyer Patrick Maisonneuve argued, as the trial drew to a close.

When Maître Patrick Maisonneuve rose to speak for the Paris Celebrity Centre (Association spirituelle de l'Eglise de Scientologie, ASES), there was a certain expectation in the court.

Maître Maisonneuve is what they call a tenor du barreau in France: a star performer in court – and he has never been afraid of defending controversial clients in high-profile cases.

His clients have included Omar Bongo, the late president of Gabon who was facing a corruption investigation at the time of his death in June 2009; and Yvan Collona, convicted of the 1998 murder of the prefect of Corsica, Claude Erignac.[1]

In the run-up to the trial, Maisonneuve had been Scientology’s most prominent legal spokesman, denouncing the threat to the movement’s existence that the trial represented.

His assessment of what was at stake had to some extent been vindicated by the closing arguments of the prosecution two days earlier: they had called for both the SEL network of Scientology bookshops and the Celebrity Centre to be shut down.

Maisonneuve’s rich bass delivery and his talent for extemporising in front the cameras made him a powerful media performer, and in court he was equally effective: his interventions during the trial were relatively few, but they were telling.

Often he spoke up when the defendants were being pressed by one of the prosecutors, or by Maître Olivier Morice, the lawyer for the plaintiffs. Maisonneuve had an uncanny knack for intervening with diffident objections, or simpy sarcastic asides, at just the right moment to break the opposing lawyer’s flow – which enfuriated Morice in particular.

Now, as lawyer for the Celebrity Centre, he was to have the last word in the trial.

He started by making it clear that he was not going to go over all the arguments already advanced by his colleagues on the defence side. But he did manage to cherry-pick the strongest arguments already advanced by the defence, as well as adding a few of his own.

And he followed a number of his colleagues by launching his first broadside at the prosecution.

He had been exercising this profession for 30 years now, he said, and it was the first case he had come across in which the prosecution had moved from saying there was no case to answer to calling for the death penalty for his client.

(The position taken by prosecutors Maud Morel-Coujard and Nicolas Baïetto certainly represented a radical about-turn – three years earlier, during the investigation, the prosecutors’ office had taken the view that there was no case to answer.)

Maisonneuve was struck by the harshness of the sentences the prosecution was now calling for, not just for the two organisations charged but for the six individual defendants.

“This is for people who did not enrich themselves by a single euro,” he said. “As complete as the debate had been, it has not revealed anything that would allow the prosecution to react with such violence.”

Like some of his colleagues on the defence, Maisonneuve referred to “a certain ambience” and the great tension during the trial, which he said had in part been fuelled by the media.

If the state was against cults, if it felt there was a public order raised by such organisations, then the state should take action, he said. “They should not leave the courts to do the work.”

Judge Sophie-Hélène Château had said several time during the trial that the question of religion was not before the court, that it was not part of the debate – that it was more a question of whether or not there had been fraud, he continued.

“But the prosecution has obviously made another choice and has decided to carry the case to the religious question,” he added.

“Methods that had come out of the brain of a science fiction writer,” he said, paraphrasing the words of the prosecutor Maud Morel-Coujard. “A religious front,” he added, picking up on a phrase from the prosecutor Nicolas Baïetto.

When it came to original sin, he said, one got the impression that the prosecutors viewed Hubbard as the woman, the snake and the apple all rolled into one.

“…fraudsters without getting rich”

The financial aspects of the case had been fully explored, he continued: but it was difficult to call the individual defendants fraudsters when they had not got rich from what they had done, he repeated.

“They’re really good these Scientologists: they are fraudsters without getting rich,” he quipped.

To find the fraud, the court had tried to go back to its basis, he said. “But you can’t do that because there, it is a question of religion.

“They [the Scientologists] say it is their religion and the prosecution says no, it is a business.”

But what does the court have to support their case?

French law did not contain a definition of law, he pointed out. “So what do we have? We have the constitution that speaks of religion, that the Republic respects all beliefs.”

Article 10 of the declaration of human rights set out the same principle, he added.[2]

And since 1905 the French republic had operated under a system in which the church and state were separate, but one was free to believe what one liked.[3]

He cited case law that suggested the French courts – and the European Court of Human Rights – had already ruled that Scientology’s activities corresponded with those of a religion.[4]

And did it matter that Scientology had its own justice system? If you were a Catholic and wanted to end your marriage, you had to seek approval from Rome, he said. “Religions often take a view that is their own.”

The prosecution had focussed on the bizarre aspects of Scientology, he said, “…and if the words are bizarre then the people are bizarre – and the prosecutor doesn’t like people who are bizarre.”

And yet the prosecution had also drawn a parallel between Scientology and psychoanalysis, he added. “Are you going to call for the death sentence for Freud?”

He rattled off a list of countries that had recognized Scientology as a religion: Portugal in 1988, Sweden in 2000 and most recently Spain in 2006.

“All these countries have recognised Scientology – and we are going to burn Hubbard’s books in the courtyard of Sainte Chapelle?” he asked.[5]

Scientology might be different, it might have modern methods: but that did not make it any less a religion, said Maisonneuve.

The prosecution had made much of Scientologists' talk of donations, of contributions, he said. “I don’t see what is so shocking.”

Synagogues charged fixed prices for marriages after all.

Eric Roux, who spoke for the Celebrity Centre in Court, had said that eight percent of their revenue went to the Mother Church abroad. If there really was some kind of fraud going on, the figure would have been a lot higher than that, said Maisonneuve.
And then there was the question of the refunds. “If someone is unhappy then you are refunded and if there is a refund then there is no fraud. But they want to say it isn’t a real refund.”

And Morice, in his closing argument, had said that the movement could somehow gain a psychological hold on its members.

But the former plaintiff Eric Aubry was someone of above-average intelligence, said Maisonneuve. And when he was not happy he wrote a long letter of complaint. “He wasn’t satisfied and he wrote a letter – and he continued to make payments,” he said.
Scientology’s critics

Maisonneuve turned his attention to some of the key witnesses who had testified against Scientology. He started with Catherine Picard, president of the French federation of counter-cult groups UNADFI.

“Mme Tavernier, formerly of UNADFI, apparently does not have the same vision as Mme Picard concerning the anti-cult offensive,” he remarked.

He was referring to Janine Tavernier, Picard’s predecessor at UNADFI. She had expressed concern that the group was failing to distinguish real religious movements from cults – a point Maisonneuve had already put to Picard earlier in the trial.

Jean-Pierre Brard, the French deputy and outspoken activists against cults had also testified against Scientology. Brard displayed a general hostility to religion, said Maisonneuve.

“He doesn’t like religion, which is his right – but he has at times gone too far,” he said. He referred to an incident during a council meeting when Brard had refused to let a councillor speak because she was wearing a cross and he considered it a breach of France’s secular principles.[6]

Brard, a former member of the Communist Party, had said during his testimony that when someone gave more than 10 percent of his income to a group then they could be considered to be in a state of dependence. In that case, said Maisonneuve, there were quite a few Party members who could be put in that category.

And then there was Roger Gonnet, the former Scientologist turned prominent critic. Gonnet was on a crusade, said the lawyer. “He is particularly insistent and always ready to give evidence. He is a professional witness.”

According to Gonnet and Morice, the Scientologists who had testified for the defence were either liars or somehow under Scientology’s control, said Maisonneuve.

But it had taken some courage for these people to speak out, as they risked being tainted with the same brush as the defendants. “They explained that they made donations, contributions – and that they regretted nothing.”

So what did all that add up to? Lined up on one side we had two plaintiffs and UNADFI and a case that had been the subject of massive publicity. But had people come running to Picard at UNADFI to file complaints as a result, he asked?

“They are not thousands,” he said of the plaintiffs. “They are only two.”

Defending the test

The indictment, he said, had focussed on the personality test as one of the “fraudulent manoeuvres” used by Scientology, saying it had no scientific value.

“Nothing in the dossier allows us to say that that it had no scientific value,” he objected. In fact there were some elements to suggest quite the opposite, he said (presumably a reference to the claims by his colleagues that the test was based on the Johnson Temperament Analysis).

And if it was part of a “fraudulent manoeuvre”, its use was far from systematic: only a fraction of the Scientologists interviewed had been introduced to the movement through the personality test.

“And some of the defendants, they themselves did the test. So these ‘fraudsters’ used the test to defraud people, but they also used it themselves, to defraud themselves!”
What did that say about the case against them, he asked?

Then there was the suggestion that the test’s results were always negative. He referred to the testimony of the plaintiff, Aude-Claire Malton, who had acknowledged that her results had contained positive as well as negative points.

“If you are a fraudster, you don’t have positive and negative points; you have negative and negative points,” said Maisonneuvre.

And he recalled what Nelly Reziga, the second plaintiff, had told investigators. Her boss, Max Barbault had had her do the test. “He concluded that I was intelligent and capable, but that I had a slight problem,” she had told the court.

That made no sense if the test was meant to be an instrument of the fraud, said Maisonneuve. “She wasn’t told, ‘You are on the edge of major peril!’”

If the staff at the centre really were out to swindle newcomers, how would they make the personality test work, he asked? “It would be in their interest to make sure that all the results were negative – and that was not the case.”

And Malton, he added, had known from her first visit to the Celebrity Centre that she was dealing with Scientology, he added. She had seen the books, she had mentioned the Lyon trial to the staff. “So how could she be deceived?” he asked.

“You have nothing”

To find the Celebrity Centre criminally responsible for the offence with which it was charged would mean in effect that the mother church had somehow contaminated the French operation, he said.

The court would also have to identify a representative through whom the fraud had worked, he added: Sabine Jacquart or Alain Rosenberg, he said. But there was no evidence to show that either had profited personally, he said.

The Centre’s accounts were in order – yet some observers had contrived to find that suspicious in itself. “What elements do you have?” asked Maisonneuvre. “You have nothing.”

What we had here was a movement that was recognised as a religion in several countries, including the United States, where it had its headquarters; and a case in which none of the defendants had got rich.

Certainly Scientologists tried to recruit new members, said Maisonneuve: but so far as he knew, proselytism was not forbidden in France.

If the investigating magistrate had wanted hard evidence of financial wrongdoing, he should have commissioned reports from financial and accountancy experts, he said: but the court had neither.

A string of countries had rejected the argument that Scientology was a purely commercial operation, he continued: Australia, Austria, England, Italy, South Africa, Sweden and the United States.

“So once more we find that France is in a rather isolated situation,” he added. But the case against Scientology had proceeded on the basis of affirmation rather than evidence, and in an atmosphere that had hardly favoured the defendants.

He mentioned that morning’s edition of the French daily Libération, which carried a profile of former Scientologist Alain Stoffen, who had just published a book denouncing the movement – and that week’s edition of the French satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchaîné.

“When I read in Le Canard EnchaînéLa justice sauve Sarko de la Sciento’ [The Courts save Sarkozy from Scientology], that gives you an idea of what is going on,” he said.

The prosecutors had called for the dissolution of the two Scientology organised charged, he said: “I ask for the dissolution of prejudice and of preconceived ideas.” And with that, he was done.

Judge Sophie-Hélène Château announced that the verdict would be delivered on October 27 at 10:00 am and adjourned the proceedings.

[1] Ironically, in the months following the Scientology, he defended a psychiatrist accused of having raped his patients – for Scientology of course, psychiatrists are virtually the root of all evil. And the ironies multiply. One of the court-appointed experts in this case was Dr. Daniel Zagury, who also testified in the Scientology trial. While he dismissed the psychiatrist’s use of hypnosis on his patients as having any controlling effect, he identified an abuse of the transference process – the emotional dependency that the client develops for the therapist – as having been a factor. This is the same phenomenon that he identified as one of Scientology's control mechanism during this trial. (The psychiatrist was convicted but has been freed pending his appeal, which is due February 2010.)
[2] He was referring to Article 10 of the Declaration of Human Rights and of the Citizen of 1789: Nul ne doit être inquiété pour ses opinions, même religieuses, pourvu que leur manifestation ne trouble pas l’ordre public établi par la Loi. No one may be troubled for his opinions, even religious, so long as their expression does not trouble the public order established by the law.
[3] Article 1 of the 1905 law reads: “The Republic assures freedom of conscience. It guarantees the free exercise of religions under certain restrictions set down hereafter in the interests of public order.” But at the same time, the State does not subsidise or favour any religion.
[4] I missed the reference, but the French case may have been the same 1980 appeal court ruling cited the day before by Yann Strieff, the lawyer for Sabine Jacquart. Maisonneuve also referred to the 1997 appeal court ruling in the Lyon case, which also suggested that Scientology could be described as a religion. That was quickly dismissed by Jean-Pierre Chévènement, interior minister at the time, who said it was no business of the court to make such a ruling. That part of the appeal court ruling was struck down by the Supreme Court, the Cour de Cassation. (Maisonneuve seemed to be suggesting that the Cassation ruling had not actually said that, but I did not follow his argument.
The European Court of Human Rights ruling against Russia’s refusal to let Scientology re-register its Moscow organisation was the same one cited earlier by his colleague on the defence, Maître François Jacquot, who represented Alain Rosenberg.
[5] Sainte Chapelle is the 13th-century church inside the courtyard of the halls of the justice Palais de Justice – a stone’s throw away from where Maisonneuve was speaking.
[6] Brard was actually fined by a French court in December 2008 over the incident, which took place during a November 2006 council meeting at Montreuil, just outside Paris, where he was mayor at the time.

1 comment:

  1. The verdict is just in. Fine of 600,000 euros. Looking forward to more excellent anaylsis and commentary, Jonny.