The Swiss Canton of Geneva Publishes a Report on Mind Control, Proposes Anti-Brainwashing Legislation

by Massimo Introvigne

At a conference held on November 25, 1999 the Canton of Geneva unveiled a "Report on Mind Control of the Criminal Law Commission on Cultic Abuses" (Rapport de la Commission pénale sur les dérives sectaires sur la question de la manipulation mentale). The Criminal Law Commission on Cultic Abuses follows the Canton of Geneva 1997 report on cults and is the brainchild of a local politician, Mr. Gérard Ramseyer. It is unclear whether the Commission is simply a publicity stunt by a politician who has embraced from some years the anti-cult crusade, or may carry real weight. The Canton of Geneva is obviously influenced by nearby France, and by the fact that a number of its citizens died in the tragedy of the Solar Temple.

The report starts by stating that cultic mind control "is a reality", mentioning as evidence "former members and parents of current members heard as witnesses by the Commission" (p. 2). It goes on by presenting an outline of the issue of mind control (the term "brainwashing" is not used) in comparative law. Although a Ms. Sophie Borguignon, Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Geneva and a member of the Commission, is praised for her "serious homework" in this field, the results are not particularly impressive. Concerning the US situation, the report claims that Molko (a Californian decision of 1988 involving the Unification Church) "governs this matter" (p. 5), and no mention whatsoever is made of the post-Molko debate, particularly of the exclusion of witnesses on brainwashing and mind control by US judges starting from the Fishman case (1990). Incredibly, a 1996 article by James Richardson from the "Brigham Young University Law Review" (in fact extremely critical of brainwashing claims in general), is quoted as evidence that brainwashing defenses raised by deprogrammers "have often (although not systematically) been regarded with favor by US courts, so that deprogrammers have been acquitted" (p. 4). No mention is made of a number of US decisions regarding deprogramming as a criminal activity. In fact, the report claims that "deprogramming is a form of therapy whose aim is an attempt to counter the mind control imposed on the member and to restore his or her free will. In fact, the deprogrammer tries to call into question the trust relationship between the member and the cult, showing that in fact he or she has been conned" (p. 4). The Italian Constitutional Court decision of 1981 striking the provision on "plagio" (brainwashing), dating back to the fascist regime, out of the Italian Criminal Code as incompatible with a democratic constitution is explained away with the argument that it was based on the vague character of the statute, ignoring that the Court said in 1981 that any anti-brainwashing statute can only be vague, since there is no accepted definition of brainwashing in general. The report also mentions attempts to reintroduce a "plagio" statute in Italy, failing however to explain that, so far, they have consistently failed.

The second half of the report deals with Swiss law. It examines how existing provisions on fraud, consumer protection, theft, and (in case of use of mind control to persuade the member to have a sexual relation with a leader) rape may be used against mind control, and it is suggested that Swiss judges apply these provisions in a broader way. The Commission thinks, however, that this is not enough, and proposes a new article of the Criminal Code (art. 182) as follows:

"Whoever has carried out physical or psychological actions in a repeated and systematical way, aimed at impairing the capacity of another person to make autonomous judgments, or at placing this other person in a state of dependency, will be punished with a jail term and a fine." (p.12)

This is, of course, still more vague than the old Italian statute on "plagio". The examples offered by the Commission as guidelines are not reassuring:

"This process includes, but is no limited to:

- magnifying the possibility of the member to be suggestionized or fascinated by a special diet, excessive repetition of routine activities or rituals, sleep deprivation, participation to lengthy sessions where the tenets of the group are learned;

- controlling the environment of the member (isolation from family and friends, filtering the information coming from the outside society...);

- controlling forms of communication (imposing the use of a coded language, excluding certain subject matters from discussion,...);

- excessive social control within the movement, exposure of the member to an intense humiliation should he or she deviate from the tenets of the group" (p.15).

It is also stated that "since the controlled member will rarely take the initiative of filing a criminal case, district attorneys should be free to act even without a previous complaint" (p. 15).

It seems that the Geneva Commission has come to accept - lock, stock, and barrel - the prevailing anti-cult version of the brainwashing argument. The guidelines describe situations common for a number of monks and nuns in different religious traditions (Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jainist, and others), and of covenant communities in the Evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic Christian, Orthodox Jewish and other religious groups. Monks, nuns, and members of covenant communities often (while, of course, not always) face a filter for TV and media news (some abstain from TV and media altogether), follow a special diet, sleep less than the average person in the outside society, do not meet often family and friends, routinely engaged in lengthy study sessions, use a language typical of the community, and accept a system of punishments should they break the rules of the community. By incriminating all this as "mind control", a number of religious traditions will be ipso facto banned from Switzerland. Friends of religious liberty may only hope that this new anti-cult proposal by the publicity-hungry Mr. Ramseyer will never reach the national parliament in Switzerland and will soon be forgotten, as it rightly deserves to be.

If you would like to receive by mail or fax a photocopy of the full text of the report (for personal use), please contact CESNUR.

See CESNUR page on brainwashing controversies.

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Sun, Dec 5, 1999