Wednesday 16 October 2013

France's top court confirms fraud convictions

Four years after the first court ruling against the movement, Scientology has lost its appeal against fraud convictions at France's top court.

France's top court on Wednesday confirmed the conviction of Scientology for organised fraud, according to French media reports.

The ruling, by the Cour de Cassation, effectively ends the legal battle in France, making the convictions definitive, RFI radio and BFMTV reported.

Even before the judgment was handed down, the movement's lawyers had said that they would take the fight to the European Court of Human Rights if it went against them.

Last year, the appeal court fined two Scientology organisations 400,000 euros and 200,000 respectively.

Scientology was trying to get those sentences quashed and in legal arguments last month tried to portray the convictions as an attack on their religious freedom.

For immediate coverage, go to Tony Ortega's Underground Bunker. I will file a longer post here when I've caught up on my sleep deficit.

But for the moment...

How Things Stand

The Celebrity Centre, a supposedly non-profit association that was raking in the money -- Association Spirituelle de l’Eglise de Scientologie CC (ASES) -- stands convicted of organised fraud.

It is fined 400,000 euros and ordered to pay for the details of the conviction to be published in several major French newpapers: Le Monde, Le Figaro, Libération, Le Parisienand Ouest France.

Scientology’s network of bookshops Scientologie Espace Librarie (SEL) also stands convicted of organised fraud. It has been fined 200,000 euros and ordered to pay for the publication of the conviction in the same newspapers.

The following appeal court convictions and sentences are also confirmed in Cassation:
  • Alain Rosenberg, the managing director of the Celebrity Centre, was convicted of organised fraud and of complicity in the illegal exercise of pharmacy. He got a two-year suspended prison sentence and 30,000-euro fine.
  • Didier Michaux, the bookshop’s star salesman, was convicted of organised fraud. He got an 18-month suspended sentence and 20,000-euro fine.
  • Jean-François Valli, the other bookshop salesman, who also did work for the Celebrity Centre,was convicted of organised fraud. He got an 18-month suspended sentence and a 10,000-euro fine.
The Cour de Cassation also confirmed the heavier sentences the appeal court had handed out to the other two defendants:
  • Sabine Jacquart was convicted of organised fraud and of complicity in the illegal exercise of pharmacy. She got a two-year suspended sentence and 30,000-euro fine (up from 10 months suspended and a 5,000-euro fine). At the time in question, Jacquart was president of the Celebrity Centre.
  • Aline Fabre, who supervised the Purification Rundown at the Celebrity Centre, was convicted of the illegal exercise of pharmacy. She was fined 10,000 euros (up from the 2,000-euro fine she got in the original sentence).
The Cour de Cassation only quashed one part of the appeal court ruling: the order for some of those convicted to pay compensation to one of the plaintiffs, Aude-Claire Malton. 

As state prosecutor Michel Gauthier had pointed out to the court last month, Malton had written to the appeal court before the trial started to say she was withdrawing from the case as a plaintiff. So that part of the ruling came as no surprise.

The only crumb of comfort for Scientology came in the Cassation ruling dismissing the bid by UNADFI, the counter-cult group, to be admitted as a plaintiff in the case.

Again though, this was no surprise: the lower courts both rejected UNADFI's bid -- but that did not stop UNADFI being represented in court during each stage of the legal process.

A sixth person was convicted at the original trial and fined 1,000 euros. Although she initially appealed, she did not turn up at the appeal trial, so her conviction and fine were confirmed by default.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

The Home Straight

France's top court is about to rule on Scientology's appeal against convictions for organised fraud. Here is how the Court of Appeal left matters in 2012.

On Wednesday, France's highest court will hand down its judgment in Scientology's appeal against last year's appeal court convictions for organised fraud.

The criminal chamber of the Cour de Cassation can choose to let the appeal court judgment stand, or it can quash some or all of the convictions.

If it quashes the convictions it will likely send the case back to the lower courts for a fresh trial.

If it lets the convictions stand, it is a racing certainty that Scientology will take the case to the European Court of Human Rights, since they will have exhausted all legal avenues in France.

The court is due to hand down its judgment at 2:00 pm Paris time (1200 GMT).1

Back in February 2, 2012, the Paris Court of Appeal confirmed the 2009 convictions of five Scientologists on charges ranging from fraud to the illegal exercise of pharmacy.2 The defendants received fines and in some cases suspended sentences.

More significantly however, two Scientology organisations were convicted of organised fraud. The Celebrity Centre Paris, was ordered to pay 400,000 euros; SEL, the movement's network of bookshops in France, was fined 200,000 euros.

The fraud convictions were centred around the use of a personality test to recruit new members, a test which the indictment had said was “devoid of any scientific value”. Both the Tribunal de Grande Instance in 2009 and the Cour d'Appel in 2012 agreed.

The convictions for the illegal exercise of pharmacy were linked to the massive doses of vitamins used in the Purification Rundown, a procedure devised by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.

The original court ruling had reached its conclusions in part on the basis of the evidence presented by the plaintiffs and expert witnesses.

But it also quoted extensively from Scientology's own literature, including documents written by Hubbard and his lieutenants setting out the movement's hard-sell tactics in detail.3

The appeal court agreed with the original court's analysis of the case in nearly every respect.

It noted that the Celebrity Centre and the SEL network of bookshops were implicated in the distribution and marketing of the personality test as a marketing tool.

They were behind the relentless hard-sell tactics employed by its sales staff: “offensive commercial practices” which amounted to harassment,it said.4

The appeal court noted the large profit mark-ups investigators had discovered for goods sold by Scientology's SEL network of bookshops.

It remarked on the close links between the for-profit SEL bookshops and the supposedly non-profit Celebrity Centre; and the large sums of money moving between the two organisations.

While that the personality test used to recruit members was described as "founded on scientific research" it was not, in fact, recognised by the scientific community, the court observed – and in any case, it added, Scientology had “no particular competence” in this field.5

The printed personality test made no direct mention of Scientology: the court did not think the mention of a Dianetics centre was enough to alert most people to the Scientology connection.6

All three of the plaintiffs had taken the test: and all three had come away with “extremely negative” results – “ruins” in Scientology's terminology. Then they were offered Scientology courses to resolve these problems.

Then, later on during their passage through Scientology, two out of the three had taken the test again; and again received negative results, putting them under further pressure to spend more money on courses.

The appeal court judgment described how the plaintiffs had been induced to spend large sums of money over a short period of time for Scientology goods and services. Such was the pressure they were subjected to, they sometimes paid up for courses several years in advance.

Under this kind of harassment, the judgment noted, the plaintiffs ended up heavily in debt.

The convictions for illegal practice of pharmacy were based on the massive doses of vitamins and minerals handed out to participants in the Purification Rundown.

Court-appointed experts had told the court that taken in such quantities, the vitamins were effectively being used as medicines.

The National Council of the Order of Pharmacists agreed, which is why they were represented in court as plaintiffs. Their position was that unqualified people had strayed into a field in which they had no business operating.

When the appeal court handed down its judgment in February last year, neither the defendants nor their lawyers were in court: they had walked out of the trial half-way through protesting that they were not getting fair hearing.

Last month, they got their hearing at the country's top court, the Cour de Cassation. On Wednesday they will get their answer.

For details of last month's arguments at the Cour de Cassation see this four-part series:
  1. How We Got There;
  2. An Impossible Defence;
  3. Defending the Rundown;
  4. Une Entreprise Crapuleuse
1   I'll post initial coverage at Tony Ortega's Underground Bunker, with a more detailed round-up here later in the day.
2   The appeal court even increased the sentences against two of the defendants convicted of the illegal practice of pharmacy. A sixth person, fined 1,000 euros for the illegal exercises of pharmacy by the original court judgment, did not turn up at the appeal trial, nor was she represented. The original sentence against her was therefore confirmed by default.
3   For more details, see the first of last week's write-ups from the Cour de Cassation, “How We Got Here”. For an even more complete write-up, see “Reviewing the Paris Judgment”, from October 2011.
4   Page 26 of the appeal court ruling.
5   Page 25 of the appeal court judgment: the court was able to reach these conclusions despite the fact that experts reports on the personality test had to be ruled inadmissable on a technicality.
6   Page 25 of the appeal court judgment.

Thursday 10 October 2013

Cassation IV: 'Une entreprise crapuleuse'

Scientology's religious freedom defence is irrelevant, the lawyer for counter-cult group UNADFI argued, as the state prosecutor denounced the movement as a “villainous enterprise”.

Claire Waquet, UNADFI
Now it was the turn of Claire Waquet for UNADFI, the alliance of counter-cult groups.

In theory, UNADFI was there to try overturn the appeal court's decision to refuse it plaintiff status in the case.1 In fact, Waquet spent most of her time attacking the defence built up by Scientology's three lawyers.

She started with a rhetorical flourish.

“Every religion is totalitarian,” she said: just like an ideology such as communism. “Its aim is to apply rules to every aspect of a person's life.”

The French republic was secular, not atheist, and it had a responsibility to ensure freedom of religion. “But it sets rules that should not be broken,” she added.

So when the state applied those laws against an organisation that did not respect them, it did not have to decide if that organisation was a religion or not.

“Obviously, a religion should not carry out crimes such as murder,” she added. “But why stop there?” A religion had no right to commit fraud either.

“You have the right to finance your church, but not by fraudulent means. I don't care if you are a religion or not.”

The role of the court, she said, was to establish if the facts of the case fit the crime on the charge sheet. “It is not about issues of society: do the facts fit the crime?”

So the court was not assembled to swap quotes from the philosophers: the issue of whether Scientology was a religion was neither here nor there.

“That is not the question,” she insisted. The question was, had the law been broken or not?

Religious freedom was something precious, something to be protected, she continued. But religion could not be offered either as a justification or an excuse for criminal activity. There was no “religious cloak of invisibility”.

Having said that, she noted that even the term “Church of Scientology” was confusing: was it a church or a science?

This was a question that had confused the courts in the past, she said, referring to an old controversy over a 1997 appeal court ruling in the conviction of several Scientologists in Lyon.2

Scientology had often played on this ambiguity between its scientific and religious claims, she noted. “But that is not going to work today.”

Turning to the personality tests at the core of the fraud convictions, Waquet noted the Court of Appeal's ruling that they had been organised to give poor results in most cases to encourage people to buy courses.

“The tests were fixed. They were designed to find your 'ruins',” she said, borrowing a term from Scientology. That made it easier for the Scientologists to persuade newcomers to take a course.

Waquet turned to the matter of the defence lawyers' walk-out from the appeal trial.

Rousseau, for Scientology, had earlier suggested that this had not been intended as a complete break with the court. Waquet, however, did not accept his claim that the defence had not been given a proper hearing.

It was the Scientologists, after all, who had taken up so much court time with procedural issues; it was they who had chosen to stage their walk-out, she argued. And this had happened just as the court was about to review the facts of the case.

“When they got to the meat of the case, there was no one in court from their side. They did not even tell their clients to stay in court. For me, I call that a tactic.

“I do not think there was a violation of the rights of the defence,” she concluded.

She reserved her final few minutes to put the case for her client, UNADFI, to be accepted as plaintiffs in the case.

“They refused the debate

Michel Gauthier summed up for the prosecution.

He started with the walk-out staged by the defence lawyers and their clients during the trial on appeal.3

The defence lawyers had complained that the Court of Appeal had not followed the proper procudure, he noted – but that needed to be put in its proper context.

“The Scientologists spent six of the [appeal] hearings on procedural matters that were repeatedly rejected,” he reminded the court.

They had even gone so far as to demand that the court produce documents that had been filed eight months earlier, sparking a courtroom shouting match that required the intervention of the batônnier, the lawyer who mediates such disputes.4

But when the time came to examine the facts of the case, he noted, they had walked out – and their clients, the defendants had accompanied them. “If they chose to quit the court, this did not damage their rights,” he insisted.

He dismissed the suggestion from the defence that the appeal court should have suspended proceedings to allow the defendants time to appoint new lawyers.

“The Court of Appeal cannot suspend proceedings on the possibility that there might be another lawyer appointed to replace the others,” he said.

“They deserted the courtroom.”

He gave short shrift too to the notion that a ministry of justice circular released shortly before the trial had somehow tainted the judicial waters.

They had had an impartial trial on appeal and Scientology's lawyers had established no link between the circular and their own case. (The circular, which reviewed the legal territory regarding cults and the legal remedies available to the courts, did not mention Scientology by name.)5

Judges had a duty of impartiality, he said, and there was nothing to suggest that this circular had undermined it. “If we had to consider every case on this basis we woud judge nobody,” he concluded, with a trace of exasperation.

As for the convictions for organised fraud, said Gauthier: “They refused the debate.”

He recapped the main points of the appeal court findings:
  • the Personality Test had been devoid of scientific value and had sought to exploit people's weak points, their “ruins” in Scientology terminology;
  • the hard-sell tactics used against the plaintiffs involved pressure to buy courses that extended to calls at home and at the workplace;
  • the exorbitant cost of membership of the International Association of Scientologists;
  • the electropsychometer, the device used in Scientology auditing, which was manufactured for a fraction of its sale price, which ran to thousands of euros.
“When you examine the facts, they add up to fraud and to organised fraud,” he concluded. The Court of Appeal convictions had met the necessary criteria under the law.

As far as the illegal practice for pharmacy was concerned, Fabre had been involved in dispensing the products used for the Purification Rundown.

Was it still necessary, in discussing this enterprise crapuleuse – this villainous outfit – to ask questions about freedom of religion? He did not think so.

“We heard very little defence on the basis of criminal law,” he noted.

Ever since the investigation had begun in this case, the defendants had protested that their rights to freedom of religion were being violated, he said.

But he insisted: “The convictions did not involve any judgment on their religious beliefs,” he said.

He spoke of the movement's “captive followers” and of the multi-million-euro turnover of the Celebrity Centre, which was registered as a non-profit association.6 What did all this have to do with freedom of religion?

Winding up, he said he agreed with the Court of Appeal finding that had refused UNADFI's bid for plaintiff status.

But he did not think that the Court of Appeal order to pay the plaintiff Aude-Claire Malton damages should stand, given that she had pulled out of both the civil and criminal proceedings before the start of the trial on appeal.

That was the only point on which he disagreed with the Court of Appeal's judgment.

After hearing some brief responses from Scientology's lawyers, the court announced it would hand down its judgment on Wednesday, October 16.
1   UNADFI Stands for L'Union Nationale des Associations pour la Défense des Familles et de l’Individu (National Union of Associations for the Defence of Families and the Individual)
2   Briefly, in 1997 the Lyon Court of Appeal, while confirming the convictions of several Scientologists, appeared to acknowledge that Scientology was a religion, which was greeted as a victory by the movement at the time. The then interior minister Jean-Pierre Chévènement was to dismiss the significance of this part of the judgment, saying that it was not for the court to make that call. That part of the appeal judgment ruling was struck down by the Cour de Cassation in its June 30, 1999 ruling.
3   In case this is not already clear, a French appeal trial is a rehearing of the case, effectively a fresh trial in a higher court: it is not just restricted to a debate over points of law.
4   For more on this row, see “Paris Appeal Trial II” and “Paris Appeal Trial III” elsewhere at this site.
5   For more on this controversy, see “Scientology Cries Foul II” elsewhere at this site.
6   During the summing up at the original trial in 2009, the prosecution cited the following figures: the non-profit Celebrity Centre’s turnover for “religious services” was 11.2 million francs in 1998 (1.7 million euros); and 12.5 million francs in 1999 (1.9 million euros), he said.
In 1998 it held assets of 37.3 million francs (5.7 million euros) spread across 17 different bank accounts.
These figures differ slightly from the indictment, which were even higher. That document puts the Celebrity Centre’s turnover at 17 million francs (nearly 2.6 million euros) for 1999 – and mentions a 1999 French parliamentary report that put the overall turnover for Scientology’s operations in France at 60 million francs (9.15 million euros).
See “...for the Prosecution II”, elsewhere on this site.