Cult members say Solar Temple leaders ordered "mass suicides"

AFP/April 19, 2001

Grenoble, France -- Two former members of the Order of the Solar Temple, an allegedly murderous doomsday cult, told a court Wednesday that senior cultists ordered the massacres that left 74 of their followers dead.

And the witnesses, who said they were still afraid of retribution, testified that senior members of the sect could have survived the massacres, which took place in Switzerland, Canada and France between 1994 and 1997.

"I am convinced that there was someone above (Joseph) di Mambro (the presumed head of the order) and that each adept still alive has to look out for himself," Evelyne Brunner-Bellaton, 57, told the court here.

The singer was a member of the Golden Way between 1979 and 1985, the sect that grew into the Solar Temple. She told the court that she had overheard cult member Jean-Louise Marsan tell di Mambro that if any followers didn't agree on the mass suicide then "We'll take charge of (making them commit) suicide."

Brunner-Bellaton was speaking on the second day of the trial of Michel Tabachnik, 58, a Franco-Swiss conductor accused of being responsible for writing much of the sect's literature, and thus of creating "a dynamic towards murder."

She described Tabachnik, who has protested his innocence, as di Mambro's "crown prince" and expected successor. "He was able to replace Jo during ceremonies ... but they fell out," she said.

Earlier Herve Joye, the head of the judicial police force in the Swiss town of Fribourg, told the court that on October 5, 1994 he had found the corpses of 23 members of the sect in an isolated and burned out farm near the village of Cheiry.

On the same day 25 more bodies were found at a farm in a neighbouring region, some of them wearing capes belonging to the sect, including the remains of the prime suspects in the Cheiry killing, Luc Jouret and Joel Egger, the 52-year-old police officer said.

Tabachnik is being tried in France, where the cult is alleged to have been behind a later massacre of 16 people in 1995.

Brunner-Bellaton said that after the Swiss masacres Tabachnik had called her and asked her not to talks about the order. "I said to myself that he must either fear vengenace, or that he must be the new head of the Order, which continued to exist," she said.

The Solar Temple gained worldwide notoriety after 74 of its members were found dead in Switzerland, Canada and France between 1994 and 1997. Several of the victims were shot or asphyxiated in what were apparently ritual murders, although some are thought to have been willing participants in mass suicides.

Among the dead were the two founders of the sect, Jouret and di Mambro. The two men apparently milked followers of their money and convinced them that they must die in a blaze to attain bliss in the afterworld.

Tabachnik has been charged with "participation in a criminal organisation."

He is alleged to have taken part in two meetings of the Order in July and September 1994, during which he "seems to have announced the winding-up of the group and the conclusion of its mission."

The September meeting took place 11 days before the two Swiss massacres described Wednesday in court by a Swiss police investigator. On the same day the bodies were found in Switzerland, five other members of the sect died in a house fire north of Montreal.

Brunner-Bellaton's husband, Roland Bellaton, told the court he joined the sect to reamin close to his daughter Dominique, who became di Mambro's second "wife", bore him a child dubbed "the new Jesus" by cultists, and eventually died in the Swiss massacres.

He said he thought Tabachnik had done "nothing wrong" and that the killings were the work of "exterior forces."

According to court documents, Tabachnik was charged because there was sufficient evidence that he "published and distributed doctrinal instructions intended to condition individuals ... and to create a dynamic towards murder."

Born in 1942 in Geneva, Tabachnik studied under French conductor Pierre Boulez and became famous as a conductor specialising in contemporary music, with orchestral posts in Canada, Portugal and France. The trial is expected to last until April 30.

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