Cult Watchers Await Verdict

Source: Guardian
Date: October 8, 1996

by Alex Duval Smith

French campaigners against cults are hoping for legislation against "mental manipulation" if the country's scientology leader is found guilty today of the involuntary manslaughter of a follower who died after jumping from a 12th floor window.

After a 10-day trial, a court in Lyon will decide whether Jean-Jacques Mazier had a role in the 31-year-old disciple's suicide in 1988. It will also rule on fraud charges against 23 other leading members of the organisation.

The state prosecutor, Thierry Ricard, has asked for a three-year suspended jail sentence and 500,000 franc ( pounds 62,500) fine for Mr Mazier, and one-to-two-year suspended sentences and 50,000 franc fines for the other accused.

The trial, which provoked demonstrations at the weekend and prompted France's leading tennis player to speak in support of the scientologists, is seen by opponents of cults as a test case.

They believe that if Mr Mazier and his supporters are found guilty, deputies will be compelled to draft legislation against mental manipulation.

Prosecutors told the court that Mr Mazier brainwashed Patrice Vic, an industrial designer who jumped from his bedroom window after telling his wife that he needed 30,000 francs ( pounds 3,750) for a "purification treatment". A year later his widow, Nelly Vic, joined a legal action by 20 former scientologists who claim they were defrauded of thousands of francs for treatments offered by the French Church of Scientology.

Thirteen of them have since settled out of court.

Mr Mazier denies leading Vic to suicide, maintaining that he is "a man of the church" who was only trying to help him.

The 23 other French leaders of the Florida-based organisation have argued that they have been helped by the teachings of the late Ron Hubbard, founder of the Church of Scientology.

A former plumber, Alain Barou, aged 31, who is charged with fraud, said: "The purification cure helps one to elevate oneself spiritually, to be free mentally and free physically of toxins."

Asked why some people considered themselves manipulated, Mr Barou said: "In all religions, there are renegades. Scientology is no exception."

Much of the trial has been taken up with argument on whether scientology should be classified under French law as a church or a cult. A French parliamentary report in January included it in a list of 173 cults and among 28 groups accused of recruiting children.

On Sunday 200 scientologists from Germany, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium and France demonstrated in Lyon in support of the Mr Mazier and his followers.

Residents of several buildings put their televisions on their window sills, at full volume, and children tossed firecrackers at the crowd in an effort to disrupt the rally.

A banner hung from one window read: "No to the Sciento, yes to life."

Last week the top French tennis player, Arnaud Boetsch, gave an interview in which he said scientology courses had helped him concentrate on the game.

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