Solar Temple trial raises hopes of new leads

Michel Tabachnik arrives at the Grenoble Court of Justice for the first day of his trial Keystone

Relatives of 48 followers of the Solar Temple cult who were murdered or killed themselves in Switzerland in 1994 are hoping that the trial of a former Geneva orchestra conductor in the French city of Grenoble will shed new light on the tragedy and prompt the Swiss authorities to reopen the case.

This content was published on April 17, 2001

The former conductor, Michel Tabachnik, is being tried for criminal association in connection with the deaths of 16 people in the Vercors region, near Grenoble, in December 1995.

He is accused of being a leading figure in the Solar Temple Order and of promoting its doctrine that followers should commit suicide in order to be transported to another planet.

Between 1994 and 1997, 74 people, including several children, died in Solar Temple rituals in France, Switzerland and Canada.

Tabachnik, who denies the accusations against him, is the first alleged member of the cult to appear in court in connection with the deaths.

The judge hearing the case, Luc Fontaine, has spent five years piecing together the events not only surrounding the Vercors deaths, but also the inner workings of the Solar Temple Order. To that end he has been looking into the two Swiss mass-killings, at Granges-sur-Salvan in canton Valais, and Cheiry, canton Fribourg, in October 1994.

Representatives of the families of the 48 victims hope the public nature of the two-week hearing will allow light to be shed on certain aspects of the case that have until now remained hidden.

"We want the truth to come out," said lawyer, Jacques Barillon, who is president of the association for the defence of the families of the Solar Temple victims.

"For years the families have had to endure a lack of understanding, and a lack of rigour on the part of certain authorities, notably in Switzerland, where the investigations produced nothing," he said.

The Swiss authorities closed their investigations without bringing anyone to trial because the cult's founders - Joseph di Mambro and Luc Jouret - were among those found dead in three burned-out ski chalets in Granges-sur-Salvan.

"If the Swiss authorities had launched a criminal investigation, perhaps today we would not be here in Grenoble," Barillon told swissinfo. However, he said that there was a chance that the next two weeks would produce fresh evidence that could lead to a reopening of the case in Switzerland.

"It's not impossible. The measures taken in Switzerland were temporary measures, meaning the inquiry have be reopened at any time if new information comes to light," Barillon explained.

"It's not inconceivable that during the next two weeks, new discoveries will be made, since the enquiries so far have been conducted in private," he added.

Tabachnik's precise role in the Vercors killings has never been established. In an interview with swissinfo, he denied any involvement.

"I'm being turned into a scapegoat. Do you really think I would organise the death of the mother of my children?" he said. Tabachnik's first wife, Christine, was one of those who died in the incident.

Prosecutors suspect Tabachnik of being one of the founders and leading figures in the sect. They say he addressed a meeting just 10 days before the Swiss massacres, at which he predicted the end of the Solar Temple Order.

Tabachnik, who faces up to 10 years in prison, denies the accusations: "Formally, I was not a member. At the beginning of the 1990s I did take part in some of their activities. Di Mambro was a friend but he betrayed me. I don't understand why I am being persecuted for this."

For Jacques Barillon, the trial in Grenoble is an important opportunity for families of the victims to come to terms with what happened and get on with their lives.

"We must not think of the Solar Temple massacres as individual events. These criminal acts - whether in Switzerland, France or Quebec - are all connected. They all had the same aim," Barillon told swissinfo.

"We happen to be in Grenoble because of the hard work of the judge here. The fact that Tabachnik is appearing in court is in itself a positive thing," he added.

by Roy Probert

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