A Swiss orchestra conductor went on trial for the second time yesterday for his alleged role in a doomsday cult which lost dozens of members in ritual killings in Canada and Europe.
Michel Tabachnik, 61, a composer who has led major orchestras in Canada, Portugal and France, is accused of criminal association and contributing to the deaths of members of the Order of the Solar Temple – 14 of whom were found burnt and lying in a star formation in a clearing in the French Alps in 1995.
Mr Tabachnik was acquitted of the same charges in 2001, but French prosecutors appealed and a new trial began in Grenoble yesterday. The conductor, whose first wife died in one of the cult’s ritual mass suicides, denies the charges and wept during his court appearance.
The apocalyptic cult was founded in the 1980s by a French Canadian, Joseph di Mambro, based on a mixture of medieval Templar beliefs and new age fantasy. Di Mambro courted wealthy followers, persuading them to give up large sums of money in the belief that they would become part of a small elite destined to be reborn on a star called Sirius.
Members were told they could only reach Sirius by “death voyages” or ritualised suicide. In 1994 and 1995, 68 were found dead in Switzerland, Canada and France in apparent mass suicides. Most of the bodies were found gassed or shot in two villages in Switzerland. One group was arranged in a star formation in a concealed chamber beneath a remote farmhouse in the village of Cheiry.
Later 16 bodies, including three children, were found in a clearing in the French Alps known as the Well of Hell. Fourteen had been shot in the head, laid out in a star and burnt. An investigating judge decided two cult leaders had killed the others and then themselves, but some relatives believe the perpetrators fled and were never caught.
Mr Tabachnik is accused of writing and distributed esoteric texts intended to incite members to believe their death would lead to redemption, so creating “a dynamic towards murder”.
During his first trial, prosecutors said Mr Tabachnik had taken part in crucial meetings discussing the end of the cult’s mission. Months later, the mass suicides took place. Mr Tabachnik denied culpability, saying he had “done nothing wrong” and had been manipulated by the cult’s leaders. His lawyers said he was being used as a scapegoat by the justice system. Judges were unable to prove a link between the texts and the suicides.
This trial is expected to last two weeks.