Wednesday 1 February 2012

Appeal Trial IV: the Big Walk-out

On the sixth day of Paris trial on appeal of Scientology, the court rejected the movement’s final bid to exclude the counter-cult group UNADFI from the proceedings. As a result, the defendants and their lawyers walked out, claiming they were being denied a fair trial.

On Thursday November 17, the sixth day of the trial, the Paris appeal court reconvened.

Two days earlier, Scientology’s defence team had lost its battle to have France’s counter-cult group UNADFI excluded from the proceedings.

Their last throw of the dice was a ninth Priority Question of Constitutionality (QPC), a procedural move designed to postpone the proceedings until the Constitutional Court could decide whether the trial was being conducted properly.

The court had rejected all eight of the QPCs presented earlier by Scientology’s lawyers. This one concentrated on the fairness of letting UNADFI play a full part in the trial.

Maître Jean-Marc Florand for Scientology’s Celebrity Centre (ASES CC) – one of the two Scientology bodies convicted of fraud at the original trial – had filed the motion at the previous hearing.

Judge Claudine Forkel had deferred the question of UNADFI’s bid for status as a plaintiff in the trial until after the proceedings, to be delivered with the full judgment.

But letting UNADFI play a full role in the proceedings when its right to be there had not been established was fundamentally unfair, he argued.

Just a couple of days earlier, in a Scientology statement released hours after the judge’s decision, he had expressed himself in rather stronger terms.

In the statement, Scientology – and its lawyers – denounced what they described as an unprecedented situation.

The court, it said, had refused at the beginning of Tuesday’s hearing to check whether or not a crucial document – one which would determine if UNADFI’s papers were in order – had been lodged in the case files.

UNADFI’s lawyer Olivier Morice insisted the document in question had been filed with the court: but the defence team insisted that they had not had sight of it.

The court had refused to produce the original case files to settle the matter, said the Scientology statement: “Unheard of in legal history!” exclaimed Maître Florand.[i]

It was this document of course, that had been the focus of the shouting match at a previous hearing, which had ended with the court’s mediator, the batônnier, being called in to knock heads together behind closed doors.[ii]

Judge Forkel had made it clear that so far as she was concerned the matter was closed.

And yet, the Scientology statement argued, despite the doubts over this crucial document, she had seen fit to defer a decision on UNADFI, effectively letting them into the trial.

“The lawyers of the Scientologists solemnly deplore that the most elementary rights have not been respected,” said the statement: all the more so because the question could have been immediately settled one way or the other.

Florand’s pleading and the movement’s extra-judicial lobbying failed to sway Judge Forkel: it took her less than five minutes to dismiss the motion.

It was at this point that Florand stood up to declare that they could not continue under such conditions. Several of his colleagues expressed similar sentiments and in the space of a few minutes, all the defence lawyers – and their clients – had walked out of the court.

The judge adjourned proceedings. The remaining lawyers and a handful of journalists stepped outside the courtroom to take stock.

A tactical withdrawal

For UNADFI’s lawyer, Olivier Morice, this was a laughable tactic: they were abandoning the battlefield, fleeing their responsibilities, he said.

“From the start of the trial their strategy has been suicidal,” he added.

He was in no doubt this had been a carefully considered strategy, he added: but it showed a profound contempt for the courts.

Olivier Saumon, the lawyer for the Order of Pharmacists, which was pursuing the defendants for the illegal practice of pharmacy, was equally astounded.

Saumon had largely managed to avoid the more heated exchanges that had punctuated Morice’s arguments with the defence. He was not after all, a habitual adversary of the movement or its lawyers.

But he was clearly not impressed with their conduct.

“In 20 years of practice, it’s the first time I have seen that,” he said. “It’s incomprehensible as a defence strategy.”

Clearly, Scientology’s leaders could not standing facing up to the harsh facts set out against them, he added.[iii]

Scientology spokesman Eric Roux meanwhile was telling a television crew that they had had no choice: there was no point in remaining when their most basic rights had been denied and every argument they had put forward had been rejected.

And a statement issued the same day by Scientology’s Celebrity Centre – one of the two organisations appealing its 2009 fraud conviction – set out what appeared to be their collective position.

Scientology was no longer prepared to endorse an unfair trial in which the scales had been tipped against them, the statement said. Their lawyers had walked out as a matter of principle and the defendants had accompanied them for the same reason.

The statement recapitulated the main points of last five days’ of procedural arguments, which the defence had – to no avail – advanced.

It denounced the justice ministry circular issued just weeks before the start of the trial, which they argued was clearly intended to put pressure on the court; and the “arbitrary” decision to let UNADFI remain a player in the trial had tipped the scales against the defendants.[iv]

The Celebrity Centre was not prepared to take part in a trial that was “absolutely unfair, and in which the most elemental rights have been refused,” the statement continued.[v]

In statements issued before and during the trial Scientology had insisted it was not afraid to fight the facts of the case.

As the procedural motions piled up and as the opposing lawyers grew increasingly exasperated – a sentiment echoed to some extent in much of the media – the movement’s lawyers continued to insist they were ready for battle.

But once every procedural motion had been denied – once a trial of the facts of the case could no longer be avoided – they walked out.

“The Church reaffirms that it does not fear for one moment a debate of the facts, but wishes it to take place in conditions guaranteeing a fair trial, respectful of the rights of the defence, basic freedoms and fundamental rights.” the movement had said in its November 15 statement.

But to most observers, it looked rather like they had been preparing their exit for some time.

[i]Unheard of in Legal History” (Du jamais vu dans les annales judiciaires !): French-language Scientology statement issued November 15, 2011.
[ii] See my earlier posting: The Paris Appeal Trial II.
[iii] Saumon’s comments were to the regional daily SudOuest on November 18, 2011 : Les Scientologues ne veulent rien entendre.
[iv] The issue of the justice ministry circular is dealt with in an earlier posting : Preparing the ground.
[v] L’Eglise de Scientologie ne cautionne plus une justice faussée et inéquitable, Scientology statement issued November 17, 2011, the day they walked out of the Paris trial on appeal.

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