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French law makes cult’s brainwashing a crime (2001) French law makes cult’s brainwashing a crime (2001)

The murder-suicides of the Solar Temple cult shocked France and presented a legal conundrum. How could a cult leader be prosecuted if he got his followers to give him their life savings and commit suicide “voluntarily”? To hold such leaders accountable, in 2001 France passed the About-Picard Law, making it a crime to mentally manipulate the vulnerable. Leaders convicted of this or other offences can have their groups closed down.

Under this law, the Church of Scientology was convicted of "organised fraud" in 2013. One case involved a woman who was manipulated into handing over 20,000 euros for Scientology products including an "electrometer" to measure mental energy. [1]

1. How the law came about
2. The content of the law (translation)
3. First article of the law (translation)

How the law came about

The Solar Temple was a doomsday cult which caused widespread consternation after the burnt bodies of 74 of its members were found between 1994 and 1997 in remote woodland clearings in Switzerland, Canada and then France. Several of the dead had been shot in the head or asphyxiated in what were apparently ritual murders, although some are thought to have been willing participants in mass suicides. [2]

The Solar Temple cult revolved around Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. Members were taught that the star would “magnetise” them and transport them there to be reborn. The manipulation included séances in a darkened sanctuary where they heard sounds “from Sirius” and saw chandeliers and swords floating in mid-air. The son of one of the leaders reportedly became suspicious when he opened a closet and found props for these performances. [3] However, he remained with the group and in 1994 his body was found in a burnt chalet in Switzerland along with the others who committed suicide there. [4]

The year after the first deaths France set up a commission to study cults with a view to extending existing laws to cover them. The 1995 report advised against creating a new crime of mental manipulation, saying that instead the offense of fraudulent abuse which already existed in the French penal code should be extended. [5] It also proposed to avoid the problem of defining a sect, thus keeping the state out of doctrinal matters. It recommended taking no account of beliefs, no matter how bizarre. All that legitimately interested the state was crimes. [6] A second commission was then set up to examine the financial aspects of some 30 cults. In its 1999 report it stressed that the rights of the vulnerable to freedom of movement, to keep and enjoy their possessions, to physical and mental health and to be free from the abuse of power must never be sacrificed in the name of religious freedom. [7]

On the basis of these reports a law was was drafted which allowed any corporation to be shut down if was shown to be endangering the public in a manner that was precisely defined. To be banned it must “have been convicted on several occasions for specific offences, including the offences of deliberate or involuntary attempts on the life or the physical or psychological integrity of people, endangering people, the illegal practice of medicine or pharmacy, false advertising, fraud or falsification, and fraudulent abuse of a state of ignorance or weakness....” [8]

At the end of 2000 the French Senate invited representatives of the main religious bodies to comment on this draft. All of them, Muslim, Jewish, Protestant and Catholic, maintained that the proposed law was unnecessary.

The spokesman for the Catholic Bishops, Monsignor Jean Vernette, despite being an expert in cults, showed no more concern for the victims than the others. He wasn’t able to find fault with this carefully considered draft, so that he had to fall back on the slippery-slope argument and maintain that at some time in the future such a law might be changed in a way that might damage the interests of his church.

As an expert in this area, he assured the Senate that the Church had long experience here and would be happy to advise the Government. After all, he said, the Church had itself encountered the problem of cults within it, and had successfully used canon law to “contain” them. [9] Could he be referring to the Legion of Christ and its leader whose sexual depredations had been known to the Vatican for decades, and undoubtedly to its expert on cults? Yet even four years after the French Senate was assured that canon law sufficed to clean up cults, the notorious leader of the Legion, Father Maciel was publicly blessed by the Pope and allowed to continue his criminal career. [10]  

Despite the objections of the religious leaders and massive pressure on the lawmakers, the About-Picard Law was passed in the National Assembly on 30 May 2001, just one vote short of unanimity. [11]  As one of the lawmakers said afterwards, “If I had doubts about the meaning of my vote, the pressures we were under, by methods effective with fragile people – mails, phone calls or saturation of websites – would have convinced me to vote for this bill!” [12]

However, the passage of the About-Picard Law did not end of the religious lobbying against it.

The US had already tried to stop it. In June 1999 the American Secretary of State met the French Foreign Minister to complain about any law which might clamp down on what the French regarded as “cults”, and the Americans saw as “minority religions”. [13] The defensiveness of the State Department is understandable, since the list of “minority religions” originating in the USA includes Pentecostals, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Black Muslims, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons and Scientologists.

Even after the passage of the law two years later, the religious lobby tried to get it struck down. An anonymous complaint was sent in to the United Nations just a week after it was signed by the President, alleging that the About-Picard Law discriminated against religious minorities. [14] It claimed that the law had been “voted in hastily” and by “less than thirty deputies”. [15] No wonder the authors of this complaint refused to sign their names.

When that didn’t work, the Jehovah’s Witnesses tried to get the law struck down by the European Court of Human Rights. However, the Court refused to hear the case, pointing out that a group could only be disbanded if it or its leaders had been convicted of several offences from a definite list of crimes. This, it assured them, “should not normally be a concern” for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.... [16]


The content of the law

This helpful section is from  the French authority which monitors cults, MIVILUDES. It walks one through the law, showing what is new and what it means.
(Translated from Mission interministerielle de lutte contre les sectes, Report for 2001, pp. 59-61)

This law consists of six chapters, containing both the criminal and civil provisions.

Under criminal law, the law essentially provides a specific offence, clarifies the rules of criminal responsibility and strengthens the rights of victims.

      ♦  Parliament has adjusted the criminalisation of fraudulent abuse of a state of ignorance or weakness of the situation [already] provided for in section 313.4 of the Penal Code to include “either a minor or a person whose particular vulnerability, due to age, illness, infirmity, physical or mental disability or state of pregnancy, is apparent and known to the perpetrator.”
          The first paragraph of new section 223.15 of the Penal Code therefore takes over the first parts of the offence of abuse of weakness and inserts a new part for “a person in a state of in psychological or physical subjection resulting from the exercise of strong or repeated pressure lobbying or of techniques likely to alter his judgement.”
          The definition of the offence is centred on “the action of applying pressure” or the use of techniques to alter [someone’s] judgement. Examples would include interrogations, prolonged fasting, repeated induction courses, conditions or rudimentary hygiene and accommodation ...
          The offence involves, as would be established in the victim, possibly by psychiatric experts, at least partial loss of control, self-mastery or independence of thought and action, resulting from strong or repeated actions or techniques likely to alter [his] judgement.
          The fact of fraudulent abuse of a state of ignorance or a position of weakness of a person in a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from strong or repeated pressures or techniques likely to alter [his] judgement “so as to lead that minor or that person to an act or an abstention [from acting] which is seriously detrimental to him” is punishable by three years imprisonment and a fine of FRF 2,500,000. [about 381,123. euros]
          In addition, an aggravating circumstance is when the offence is committed by the leader of a group whose purpose is to create or maintain such subjection. The penalties incurred are increased to five years imprisonment and a fine of FRF 5,000,000. [about 762,245 euros]

       ♦  The extension of criminal liability of legal persons for certain offences has been agreed upon by the two assemblies [National Assembly and Senate]
          It applies to offences that are generally committed within cults: the illegal practice of medicine; crimes of fraud and forgery (Articles L to 213.1 L 213.4 of the Consumer Code), threats (for example, threats made by the leaders on the members, or more frequently, the former members who left the sect and want to initiate legal proceedings against it); offences of violating respect for the dead (particularly committed within sects known as “satanic”); offences of deliberate damage to life, such as murder and poisoning (which can be committed in sects known as “apocalyptic”); torture and barbarous acts ; rape and sexual assault, abandonment of family; interference with rendering assistance measures and failure to rescue.
          In addition, the law restricts the ability to broadcast messages for young people and promoting a corporation engaged in cult activities, once it or its legal or de facto leaders since it have incurred final convictions. 

        ♦  Finally, victims’ rights are strengthened because any association recognised as being of public utility may bring a civil action in the case of certain offences against human rights, if the association has been legally registered for at least five years from the date of the events and offers in its statutes to protect and assist the individual or to defend the rights and freedoms of individuals and groups.

Under civil law, the [About-Picard] law establishes a procedure for judicial dissolution of certain corporations.

          The high court “may order” the dissolution of any corporation “which pursues activities with the aim or effect of creating, maintaining or exploiting the psychological or physical subjection of persons who take part in these activities,” under conditions that guarantee at the same time rights of the defense and freedom of association.

          In effect, the judicial dissolution presupposes that several final criminal convictions have been imposed against the corporation or its leaders for offences which are listed exhaustively, especially the offences of deliberate or involuntary damage to the person’s life or physical or mental integrity, endangerment of the person by illegal practice of medicine or pharmacy, false advertising, fraud or forgery, fraudulent abuse of his state of ignorance or weakness ...

          The process of dissolution is brought before the High Court “at the request of the the public prosecutor acting in his official capacity or at the request of any interested party”. The claim is brought, heard and decided in conformity with the law on a set day. The appeal period is fifteen days. The various corporations involved must be parties to the proceedings.

          The case is set at short notice. On the appointed day, it is conducted according to the terms laid out in sections 760-762 of the new Code of Civil Law.

          A judicial procedure for dissolution seemed to the parliamentarians preferable to the administrative dissolution originally planned because it allows an adversarial procedure and, therefore, fully respects human rights.

First article of the law (translation)

Act No. 2001-504 of 12 June 2001 to strengthen the prevention and suppression of cults (sectes) detrimental to human rights and fundamental freedoms
NOR: JUSX9903887L
Consolidated version as of December 22, 2007

Chapter I: Civil Dissolution of certain corporations.

Amended by Law n ° 2007-1787 of December 20, 2007 - art. 26 (V)

In accordance with this section, the dissolution of any corporation (legal personpersonne morale) of whatever legal form or purpose, may be imposed if it pursues activities with the purpose or effect of creating, maintaining or exploiting the psychological or physical subjection of persons who participate in these activities, when definitive criminal sentences have been handed down against the corporation itself or its legal or practical agents for any of the following offences:

1. Offences against mankind, crimes of intentional or unintentional damage to life, or bodily or mental harm to the person, endangering the person, violations of civil liberties of the person, the dignity of the person, injury to the personality, of endangering minors, damage to property under Articles 214-1 to 214-4, 221-1 to 221-6, 222-1 to 222-40, 223-1 to 223-15, 223-15-2, 224-1 to 224-4, 225-5 to 225-15, 225-17 and 225-18, 226-1 to 226-23, 227-1 to 227-27, 311-1 to 311-13, 312-1 to 312-12, 313-1 to 313-3, 314-1 to 314-3 ,324-1 to 324-6 and 511-1-2 of the Penal Code;

2. Offences of the unlicensed practice of medicine or pharmacy under Articles L. 4161-5 and L. 4223-1 of the Code of Public Health;

3. Offences of false advertising, fraud or forgery under Articles L. 121-6 and L. 213-1 to L. 213-4 of the Consumer Code.

The process of dissolution shall be brought before the High Court at the request of the public prosecutor acting in his official capacity or at the request of any interested party. [...]


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