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A Fatal Flaw in the Rule of Law

by: William C Walsh

March 22, 2005

The gravity and frequency of human rights violations directed at minorities is directly linked to safeguards that exist to ensure the independence of judges, prosecutors and other court officials. In countries where these safeguards have been breached, the scales of justice are transformed into a stacked deck, making a mockery of the rule of law.

While this phenomenon in totalitarian countries is well known, hidden from the public are programs and policies developed in France, Belgium and Germany designed to undermine the independence of the judiciary and to bias courts against entire classes of citizens.

These programs and policies continue to this very day. Case in point: France. In February 2005, a complaint was submitted to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers on behalf of seven individuals representing diverse minority faiths and interfaith groups in France regarding oppressive measures and actions by the French government to abuse the judicial process to target minority religious groups and their followers.

These measures are designed to bias judges against such groups and their members, interfere with the independence of the judiciary, contravene the right to a fair hearing, and violate the principles of non-discrimination and equality at the heart of justice. They represent an attempt to improperly single out and repress minority religious organizations through bad faith prosecutions and trials steeped in prejudice.

Under the previous administration, French government ministries and institutions enacted numerous directives targeting 173 minority faiths arbitrarily and derogatorily designated as “sects”, entangling the government into making impermissible value judgments about religious and spiritual minorities. Overnight, 173 movements and hundreds of thousands of French citizens were officially and publicly transformed into second class citizens who are to be feared, avoided, denied basic human and civil rights and “fought against”.

On February 29, 1996, the Ministry of Justice sent a Circular to public prosecutors around the country urging them to "fight" sects. Through "faultless vigilance" and using "particular severity", the Minister invited prosecutors to "apply the existing law more strictly" and to "fully use the existing legal arsenal."

The Circular also stated that 1) “every complaint or declaration relating to sectarian phenomena be carefully studied and be the subject of a systematic investigation... the possible requisites for dismissing the case will have to be especially detailed"; and 2) meetings be held by public prosecutors with officials throughout the government in order to “improve their knowledge of such groups, and facilitate a coordinated action.” The annex to the Circular officially lists the 173 targeted religious movements.

On the basis of the 1996 Circular, a “mission sect” was established within the Department of Criminal Affairs and Pardon (DACG) of the Ministry of Justice headed by a magistrate, Marie-Jose Aube Lotte, who oversees the prosecution of cases concerning minority religions, putting pressure on prosecutors to bring cases against minority faiths. Ms. Lotte has attended conferences and lectures organized by anti-religious groups; she has also published articles that repeat the misinformation and inaccurate stereotypes put forward by these groups.

Starting in 1996, training and “awareness” programs for the police, state prosecutors, judges and teachers were initiated. Academics and other experts were not invited to participate in these “awareness” sessions, which focused on false and derogatory stereotypes put forward by private anti-religious groups.

This was followed by a December 1998 Ministry of Justice Circular requesting Magistrates to maintain contact with “associations judged to be serious,” which “combat sects”. The 1998 Circular appointed general prosecutors within each appeal court as “sect correspondents” for their jurisdiction, in charge of pushing so called “anti-sect” cases on the public prosecutors below them, and under the direct supervision of the anti-sect magistrate at the DACG.

The Guide for Public Agents on Sectarian Deviations, published in January 2005 by the “French Inter-ministerial Mission to Fight Against Sectarian Abuses” (Miviludes), contains a chapter on the machinery to fight against “sects” set up within the Ministry of Justice. The chapter notes that each year the National School for Magistrates organizes a one-week seminar on sects for prosecutors, judges, police officers, and government officials from the youth and sports ministry, national education, judicial protection of youth, general direction of competition and consumer offices. The anti-sect magistrate at DACG runs these seminars together with an official at the Labor Ministry. In addition, the anti-sect magistrate also gives these seminars on sects to prosecutors and judges within the appeal courts.

Along with the Circulars, these seminars and awareness programs improperly prejudice attendees against targeted faiths by providing biased stereotypes and unscientific information, and thus clearly violate human rights standards. Belgian officials have also lectured and participated in these seminars on “sects.”

Based on documents released under the Freedom of Information law, the presentations on the targeted religions have been biased. The mountain of positive jurisprudence and official recognitions regarding these groups has been completely ignored. Only a few negative court decisions were provided, and decisions from higher judicial authorities directly contradicting those decisions were also not discussed. Objective and scientific information regarding these groups was not included – neither objective scholars nor experts in the field of religion were included in the program, exposing the program as an attempt to prejudice the judiciary against minority religious organizations.

Such “awareness” programs for court officials have been condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Committee. In its Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Germany. 18/11/96 (CCPR/C/79/Add.73), the Human Rights Committee recommended, in strikingly similar circumstances, that Germany discontinue the holding of "sensitizing sessions for judges against the practices of certain designated sects”. Otherwise, the right to a fair trial is destroyed for religious minorities.

Imagine if such seminars were held to “sensitize” prosecutors and judges on uniformly one-sided and negative information concerning racial or ethnic groups, with organizations opposed to such groups being invited to speak at such seminars. The injustice at issue here is no different.

Such reprehensible attempts to bias the judiciary against targeted faiths represent an assault on the Rule of Law. These tactics simply have no place in a democracy and contravene UN human rights standards for Judges as articulated in UN Commission of Human Rights Resolution 2003/39 Integrity of the Judicial System; and Human Rights in the Administration of Justice: A Manual on Human Rights for Judges, Prosecutors and Lawyers and Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary. Likewise, the Council of Europe’s Recommendation Rec (2000)19 of the Committee of Ministers to Member States on the Role of Public Prosecution in the Criminal Justice System prohibits and discrimination based on religion or belief. These Guidelines require court officials to “carry out their functions impartially and avoid political, social, religious, racial, cultural, sexual or any other kind of discrimination.”

The time has come for France, Belgium and Germany to cease and desist their efforts to undermine the neutrality and objectivity of the judiciary and restore the Rule of Law for religious minorities. Stacked decks have no place in the halls of justice.

William C. Walsh is a Washington D.C.-based human rights attorney who specializes in religious freedom issues.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by the Church of Scientology International Human Rights Department, which publishes articles in the News Forum to provide a means for organizations to express their views and to advance the cause of human rights around the world.

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