French sect deaths case delayed

A fresh legal bid to convict a Swiss orchestra conductor of involvement in the ritualistic deaths of 16 cult members in 1995 has been adjourned by a French court.

Michel Tabachnik was cleared in June 2001 after judges ruled there was insufficient evidence he helped set up the suicides of 16 followers of the Order of the Solar Temple sect, but victims' families appealed against his acquittal.

The Solar Temple gained worldwide notoriety after 74 of its members were found dead in woods in France, Switzerland and Canada between 1994 and 1997.

The dead were mostly shot or asphyxiated in what were apparently either ritual murders or mass suicides. Among the dead were the sect's founders, who were accused of milking money from members and convincing them they must die in a fire to attain bliss in the afterworld.

The Grenoble appeals court on Monday adjourned the case until next June because two experts hired for the inquiry into sect have been put under investigation for leaking information.

"We agree to a postponement of the hearing in the interests of a proper treatment of the file and for the clarity of the debates," judge Jacques Buisson told the court.

Separately, the prosecution counsel said it was up to the Grenoble public prosecutor to answer a request for new evidence to be examined suggesting the 1995 deaths of the 16 cult members may not have been suicide.

Last week, the son of a couple who were among the dead, said a forensic expert had found traces of phosphorus in his parents' exhumed bodies, suggesting a flame-thrower had been used on them.

Tabachnik, who was in court, maintained his innocence and said he was in "total ignorance" about the fate of the 16 sect members, who included three children. He has admitted he once had links to the cult.

Lawyers for the victims' families say the 16 were killed and set on fire by other Solar Temple members who fled.

The charred bodies were found, laid out in a star pattern, in a remote Alpine forest.