Swiss orchestra conductor to be tried in Solar Temple deaths case

GRENOBLE, France, April 15 (AFP) - A Swiss orchestra conductor goes on trial in this southeastern French city on Tuesday charged for his role in events leading up to the mass deaths of members of the Order of the Solar Temple sect in 1995.

Michel Tabachnik, 58, who lives in Geneva, was ordered to stand trial last year on a charge of "participation in a criminal association." He faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

His attorney, Francis Szpiner, said Tabachnik was not planning to be present at his trial -- which is permitted under French law.

"My client is being made a scapegoat and what you have here is a mockery of justice," Szpiner told AFP. "I think Mr. Tabachnik was used by the magistrate who needed to justify the lengthy investigation he conducted."

The trial marks the first time that an alleged member of the Order of the Solar Temple sect has been brought to justice in France.

The doomsday sect gained worldwide notoriety after 74 of its members died in apparent murder-suicides in Switzerland, Canada and France between 1994 and 1997. Several of the victims were shot or asphyxiated.

Among the dead were the two founders of the sect, Luc Jouret and Joseph di Mambro. The two men apparently milked followers of their money and convinced them that they must die by burning in order to reach the afterworld.

According to the charge sheet against Tabachnik, the conductor took 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 very object of which was the commission of crimes then under preparation".

The meeting in September took place 11 days before 48 members of the sect, including at least five children, died of poison and gunshots in Swiss farmhouses and chalets. On the same day their charred remains were found, five other members of the sect died in a house fire north of Montreal.

And in December 1995, the charred bodies of 16 members of the sect, including three children, were found in the Vercors forest, in eastern France.

According to court documents, Tabachnik was charged because there was sufficient evidence that he "edited and distributed doctrinal instructions intended to condition individuals to the idea that they belonged to an elite with a mission of redemption, and to create a dynamic towards murder."

"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," Szpiner said. "Everything has been incredibly lumped together to bring the cases to trial."

The trial, being held in a former museum in Grenoble in order to accommodate the large number of people expected to attend, is set to last two weeks.

Born in 1942 in Geneva, Tabachnik studied under Pierre Boulez and became famous as a conductor specialising in contemporary music, with orchestral posts in Canada, Portugal and France.