Suspected cult leader faces second trial
The Swiss orchestral conductor, Michel Tabachnik, is again on trial to answer charges of "criminal conspiracy" in the deaths of 16 members of a doomsday cult.
The trial in France takes place four years after he was acquitted of conspiring to brainwash 74 followers of the Order of the Solar Temple into accepting death by occult ritual.
Prosecutors appealed against the ruling, and on Tuesday a court in the city of Grenoble reopened the proceedings. The trial is expected to last six weeks.
The new charges are in relation to 16 cult members, three of them children, whose charred remains were discovered in the French Alps near Grenoble in December 1995.
The 64-year-old musician, who admitted to belonging to the Solar Temple cult during his trial in 2001, is accused of encouraging cult members to a "transit towards the star Sirius" – a suspected reference to mass suicide.
Tabachnik refused to comment on arriving at the Grenoble penal court. While the earlier trial attracted widespread attention, only a half-dozen people attended the new proceedings.
In the first trial, French judges cleared Tabachnik of the brainwashing charges due to lack of evidence. The appeal is only just coming to court after numerous delays caused by the indictment in Paris of the main psychiatric expert responsible for overseeing the Order of the Solar Temple case.
The Solar Temple cult gained worldwide notoriety between September 1994 and March 1997 when the burnt bodies of 74 of its members were found in Switzerland, Canada and then France.
Several had been shot in the head or asphyxiated, and many had been drugged, in what were apparently ritual murders, although some were thought to have been willing participants in the supposed mass suicides.
The two founders of the sect, Luc Jouret and Jo Di Mambro, were among the dead. They had allegedly extorted followers of their money and convinced them that they must die by burning in order to attain bliss in the afterworld.
During his trial in 2001, Tabachnik denied the accusations of indoctrination. He also rejected the charges that his writings – inspired by a mixture of the occult, and New Age and esoteric theories – had prepared the way for their deaths.
Central to the prosecution's case in 2001 was the charge that Tabachnik had taken part in meetings of the Solar Temple, held in France in July and September 1994, at which he "announced the winding-up of the group and the conclusion of its mission".
The judges concluded Tabachnik could have made the announcement to help Jouret and Di Mambro paint the subsequent murders as a spiritual ritual.
But the conductor could just as easily have called for the sect to be wound up because his own philosophy had evolved, as expressed in tracts he had written at the time, they ruled.
Swiss authorities investigating the deaths of 48 of the cult members who perished in two apparent mass-suicides in cantons Valais and Fribourg in 1994 failed to establish any link between the cult and Tabachnik, but a French investigating magistrate decided there was enough evidence to put the conductor on trial.
Tabachnik, who studied under conductor Pierre Boulez and composer Iannis Xenakis, has led the Philharmonic Orchestra of Lorraine and orchestras in Canada and New York.
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Chronology of the Solar Temple affair
1983 – The Belgian Luc Jouret and Frenchman Joseph De Mambro found a secret order in Geneva combining several groups. In 1990 the sect is named the Order of the Solar Temple.
September 30, 1994 – A 35-year-old Swiss man, his wife and three-month-old child are murdered in Morin Heights in Québec in an apartment belonging to Di Mambro. Four days later a Swiss couple are also found dead in the same location.
October 5, 1994 - 23 bodies are discovered in a burnt-out farm in Cheiry in canton Fribourg. The same day 25 bodies, including those of Jouret and Di Mambro, are found in Salvan in canton Valais.
December 23, 1995 - 16 bodies are discovered in a star-formation in the Vercors region in France.
April 3, 1996 – According to the three Swiss judges in charge of the case in Switzerland, none of the people responsible for the massacres survived.
March 22, 1997 – Five bodies are discovered in a house belonging to a cult member in St Casimir in Québec. In total, 74 cult members died (30 Swiss, 30 French and ten Canadians).
July 3 2000 – Michel Tabachnik is ordered to appear before the Grenoble court for "criminal association", accused of being one of the cult leaders.
June 25, 2001 – The Grenoble court acquits Tabachnik of "criminal association". The prosecutor's office lodges an appeal.
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