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The BBC's Andrew Webster
"If convicted Mr. Tabachnik faces up to 10 years in prison"
 real 56k

Tuesday, 17 April, 2001, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
Conductor on trial after cult deaths
Michel Tabachnik
Tabachnik claims he is being made a scapegoat
A Franco-Swiss orchestra conductor accused of playing a part in events which led to the deaths of 16 cult members has gone on trial in France.

Michel Tabachnik is believed to have close ties to the founders of the Order of the Solar Temple, 74 of whose members died in three countries in the mid-1990s.

Sixteen of the bodies were found in France, sparking a lengthy inquiry which led to Mr Tabachnik's trial.

Solar Temple blaze in Switzerland
Cult victims died in France, Switzerland and Canada
A former museum in Grenoble has been converted into a courtroom for the trial, to accommodate the dozens of people expected to attend. The witness tally alone is expected to reach around 60.

Mr Tabachnik, 58, is accused of "participation in a criminal association", an offence which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

"I have come before my judges because I have done absolutely nothing wrong," Mr Tabachnik told the court.

Prosecutors believe he took part in two crucial meetings in 1994, at which the decision was taken to end the sect's "mission" and wind up its affairs.

Eleven days after the second meeting, 48 cult members were found gassed or shot in Switzerland. Others were found dead in fires in Canada.


What you have here is a mockery of justice

Tabachnik's lawyer Francis Szpiner
The following December, 16 more charred bodies - including those of four children - were found, this time in a forest in the French Alps.

All had been shot in the head, and laid out in a star formation in a forest clearing.

A French judge who investigated the deaths believes two cult members killed the others and then themselves, but some relatives believe the perpetrators did not die and are still at large.

Documents to be put before the trial will suggest that Mr Tabachnik played a role in conditioning members to believe they were in an elite group with a mission of redemption.

Luc Jouret
Co-founder Luc Jouret was among the dead
He helped "create a dynamic towards murder", say the documents.

Tabachnik's lawyer, Francis Szpiner, said his client was being made a scapegoat.

"What you have here is a mockery of justice," Mr Szpiner told the French news agency, AFP before the trial started.

"I think Mr Tabachnik was used by the magistrate, who needed to justify the lengthy investigation he conducted.

"My client is torn between feeling that he has been made a scapegoat in this case and wanting to prove that he has done nothing wrong. Everything has been incredibly lumped together to bring the cases to trial."

The 74 dead cult members included founders Luc Jouret and Joseph di Mambro, who had allegedly taken money from their followers before convincing them they had to die by burning in order to reach the afterlife.

Ideology

It is with Di Mambro that prosecutors believe Mr Tabachnik had close links. They believe the conductor drew up documents forming the sect's ideology.

Mr Tabachnik denies the charges against him, insisting that he was one of Di Mambro's victims.

Mr Tabachnik studied under Pierre Boulez and became famous as a conductor specialising in contemporary music, holding orchestral posts in Canada, Portugal and France.

He now lives in Paris.

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