© Parrot-Ruet/Sygma/Corbis16 people including 3 children are shot dead, then burned with a flame thrower on December 23, 1995, on the Vercors Plateau, near Saint-Pierre-de-Cherennes in France
Grenoble, France - A French court trying a Swiss conductor for conspiracy to murder heard allegations on Wednesday that Swiss police bungled a 1994 probe into the deaths of 48 members of the Order of the Solar Temple cult, failing to prevent further mass suicide pacts.
Michel Tabachnik went on trial on Tuesday, on charges stemming from his involvement in the doomsday sect, thought to be responsible for 74 deaths.
The court in Grenoble, in the French Alps, is examining the death of 16 cult members, including three children, whose charred bodies were found, laid out in a star pattern, in December 1995 in a forest in the remote Vercors region.
"If the Swiss investigation had been properly conducted, we would not be here today," lawyer Jacques Barillon told the Swiss police officer who led the 1994 probe and who is appearing as a witness in the French trial.
Barillon, who is representing relatives of cult members who perished in the Vercors death pact, accused Swiss police of failing to keep track of leading Solar Temple members after two mass suicides left 48 dead in Switzerland in October 1994.
Three of those sect members went on to organise the Vercors murder-cum-suicide that left 16 dead in a forest clearing known as the Well of Hell, Barillon said.
"The Swiss investigation was a mistaken diagnosis. There was an absence of investigative measures such as wiretapping, monitoring mail and following cult members," the lawyer told police officer Herve Joye.
"There have to be reasons to wiretap a person. We were completely bewildered at the time. No one had ever heard of the Order of the Solar Temple," Joye replied.Mass Suicides
Michel Tabachnik is the only defendant in the Grenoble trial, the first aimed at the Order of the Solar Temple, which is thought to be responsible for a total of 74 deaths in Canada and Europe between 1994 and 1997.
Prosecutors accuse the orchestra conductor of playing a leading role in the sect and inciting members into suicide pacts.
The 58-year-old has admitted that he once had links to the cult but has denied that he was one of its leading figures or knew anything about the mass suicides.
Tabachnik was questioned in 1994 but did not face any charges, even though his cult member's cape was found close to the 23 dead bodies found after the first Swiss death pact.A French policeman and cult member who is thought to have shot dead 14 other members before setting himself and the dead bodies on fire in the Vercors death pact, was also among suspects who were questioned but left at large by Swiss police in 1994.
If convicted, Tabachnik faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of one million francs (135,000 dollars). The trial is scheduled to last two weeks.
In addition to the 64 deaths in Switzerland and France, 10 others died in Canada in separate group suicides, in Morin Heights in September 1994 and Saint-Casimir in March 1997.
Members of Order of the Solar Temple believe that "death voyages" by ritualised suicide lead to rebirth on the star Sirius. The sect is now believed to be dormant.