Nostalgic cultists defend suicide sect

GRENOBLE, April 19 (AFP) - A series of former members of the Order of the Solar Temple, a doomsday cult blamed for the deaths of 74 adepts, defended the sect and its alleged ringleaders in a French court Thursday.

One of the cultists defended orchestra conductor Michel Tabachnik who is accused of being one of the ideologues behind the massacres and said only dead cult leader Joseph di Mambro could have ordered mass killings or suicides.

"If he had called me, I would have gone ... these people chose to die to go to the world beyond, for another mission. If anyone other than di Mambro had proposed death it wouldn't have happened," Louis Faucon, a 70-year-old former riding instructor, told the court.

Faucon was speaking on the third day of Tabachnik's trial on charges of membership of a criminal organisation and was the latest in a string of middle-class French and Swiss adepts of the cult to testify in his defence.

"They are looking for a scapegoat. I will do anything to get him out," said Faucon, whose wife Mercedes was one of 16 members of the Order found killed in a remote French village in December 1995.

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, including children, were shot or asphyxiated in what were apparently ritual murders, although many are thought to have been willing participants in mass "assisted" suicides.

A Swiss cultist, 56-year-old engraver Hubert Nicollet, told the court that the fact that parents had "taken their children to these massacres was proof of their greater love for them, they did not want to leave them alone."

Among the first to die were the two founders of the sect, Luc 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 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. On the same day the bodies were found in Switzerland, five other members of the sect died in a house fire north of Montreal.

In December, after the death of di Mambro, a group of 16 cultists were killed in the French Alpine village of Vercors. Again the deaths had the appearance of an mass assisted suicide.

"They were frustrated at not having been called by di Mambro, and decided to do it themselves, without outside help and its obvious that those responsible are dead," Faucon told the court.

Tabachnik is said to have "published and distributed doctrinal instructions intended to condition individuals ... and to create a dynamic towards murder" according to his charge sheet.

But Faucon agin defended him, claiming Tabachnik's writings were too obscure to have inspired the members of the sect.

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.