Victims of the French cult leader Alain Schmitt, who is appealing an extradition order to France, have spoken out on their horrifying experience at the hands of the Minh Vacma sect leader.
Schmitt and his Belgian fiancée Laurence Liegeois were arrested in a Naxxar residence on 7 January while fleeing from justice after a French court in Thionville, found them guilty in absentia in 2008 on kidnapping charges. Schmitt was given a five-year prison sentence, while Liegois got three years.
Former members of the religious sect Minh Vacma testified that they were subjected to inhumane treatment while living in the sect's compound in Algrange. Witnesses said they were forced to eat dog food and drink toilet water. One victim said he was extorted out of around €21,000, while others claim promotions in Minh Vacma's hierarchy were made in return for sexual favours.
The Rèpublicain Lorraine newspaper reported the story of an unnamed 25-year old from the Sarreguemines, renamed 'Patrick', who described having "gone through hell" before being freed by the police from the clutches of Minh Vacma back in 2005.
Patrick first met Schmitt in 2003 at a get-together for UFO aficionados in Brussels. After enduring a bitter break-up with his girlfriend, ending in financial turmoil and "landing on the street", Patrick found shelter at Schmitt's Algrange compound, where he thought he would be staying for a few days until he can start afresh.
But Patrick stayed there for four months, and was only released upon the police's intervention to arrest Schmitt in June 2005. Testifying in court three years later, Patrick said "he initially was under the impression that he had found a family," and it was only after a few months that he realised that something was not quite right.
He recounted how Schmitt's entourage seemed "very, very saddened" upon learning of his decision to leave the house, whereupon he was locked in a bathroom and deprived of bare essentials like toilet paper or food.
Another victim, 24-year old Jennifer Ballot, spent 22 days in Schmitt's compound where she lost 20kg in three weeks due to "deprivation and interminable general chores which turned into hard labour."
Ballot was 19 when she turned to the sect. She still wonders what made her join in the first place: "What I know for sure is that I am still scared of hearing his (Alain Schmitt's) name. It is psychological, you know, the fear."
Ballot said Schmitt "abused of her weaknesses, and it was hell - just like for anyone who stepped foot in there."
She said she was "easy prey" when she met one of Schmitt's followers at a railway station in Luxembourg in December 2004. After a heated row with her mother two days before Christmas, she called Minh Vacma for help and four women picked her up.
"I was supported at first," she said. "They even gave me lessons as I had dropped out of school at an early age. Alain offered me endless advice in the beginning."
But her new adventure soon turned to misery: "Members of the sect only ate vegetables and we were all weak. I believe this was a control tactic. We kept walking, especially at night. We were only allowed to sleep very little while being engaged in severe physical activity and body building."
Ballot describes Schmitt as a "half-blind man with a shaven head" who was often referred to by members of the sect as 'sensei', which is Japanese for 'master.'
"I was locked up in a room with cats and dogs for a whole four hours one day, and after I was freed they said it was only because they had forgotten to unlock the door. I could not recognise myself anymore. I was very tired and everyone was so thin."
She said the sect was meant to serve as a "way towards inner peace" but it invariably ended up in sex. "They are going to prepare you to have relationships with men," she quoted Schmitt telling her one day.
Ballot escaped when, one day she was punished and forced to wash six of the sect's cars while her hands and feet were all blistered. "I stopped at a café at one point, and that is when I saw all six cars loaded with sect members searching for me."