Ragnar Rylander vs CIPRET and OxyGenève

Decision of the Tribunal de Police, 24 May 2002

Comments by CIPRET-Genève and OxyGenève

 

On 24 May 2002, the Tribunal de Police, the criminal court of first instance in Geneva, Switzerland, found Pascal Diethelm and Jean-Charles Rielle jointly guilty of defamation against Ragnar Rylander, a former associate professor at the University of Geneva and former professor of environmental health at the University of Göteborg in Sweden. The tribunal condemned the defendants to pay a fine of CHF 4’000 each and to make a CHF 4’000 contribution each to the plaintiff for his legal expenses. No moral damage was granted to the plaintiff. The defendants were not even asked, as was requested by the plaintiff and as is customary, to publish the judgment. All other claims made by the plaintiff were dismissed. (See http://www.prevention.ch/ryj240502.htm for full text of judgment in French)

 

The two defendants immediately declared their intention to appeal. Jean-Charles Rielle is physician-in-charge of CIPRET-Genève, a Swiss association dealing with public health and prevention. Pascal Diethelm is president of OxyGenève, a Swiss association dedicated to the defense of non-smokers. Together, they had given a press conference on 29 March 2001 where they revealed the secret ties between Dr Ragnar Rylander and Philip Morris and denounced an infiltration  of the University of Geneva by the tobacco industry. Ragnar Rylander filed a formal complaint in April 2001.    

 

On closer examination, the tribunal’s decision is far from being a clear-cut condemnation of the two defendants. By and large, the judgment supports the revelations made by the two associations. Almost all of the defendants’ revelations have been either confirmed or left unchallenged.  The tribunal has determined that their statement that “Ragnar Rylander was secretly employed by Philip Morris” is true, and that Ragnar Rylander failed to fulfill his “moral obligation” to disclose his ties with the tobacco company. The tribunal found that only two statements remained insufficiently substantiated: (1) that Ragnar Rylander was “one of the most highly paid consultants of Philip Morris” and (2) that he was “responsible for an unprecedented scientific fraud”.

 

For the first statement, the tribunal pointed out that the defendants had not given examples of other Philip Morris consultants, so that it could not be claimed that Rylander was one of the most highly paid among them. This is factually incorrect, and will be easy to deal with on appeal.

 

The second statement is attributed to defendants, but does not reflect what they actually said. Defendants have repeatedly said that Ragnar Rylander was the instrument of an unprecedented scientific fraud staged by the tobacco companies. They have not stated that he was himself the instigator of the fraud, but only a knowing participant. Interestingly, the discussion part of the judgement goes quite far in establishing the plaintiff’s scientific misconduct, as shown in the quotes below:

 

q       “The documents show the important relationship and the frequent contacts between the plaintiff and Philip Morris and this since many years.” (p. 3, 2nd para.)

 

q       “Some documents make it possible to observe that the intellectual independence of the plaintiff may have been hindered by his sponsor’s agents.” (p. 3, 3rd para.)

 

q       “A letter suggests that the plaintiff’s desire to preserve the ‘appearance of an independent scientist’ implying that he is not.” (p. 3, 3rd para.)

 

q       “Another document indicates that results of research conducted by the plaintiff have been altered. Another one shows that the basis established before the initiation of a research was modified in such a way that the results could match the expectations of the fund provider.” (p. 3, 3rd para.)

 

q       “The mail exchanged by the plaintiff before and after the organization of seminars is questionable.” (p. 3, 3rd para.)

 

q       “The independence of the plaintiff with respect to Philip Morris is seriously called into question by the documents that were produced.” (p. 3, 4th para.)

 

q       “There appear to be disturbing indications of potential conflict of interest between the scientific research work carried out by the plaintiff and the undisclosed financing of such research by the tobacco industry.” (p. 3, 4th para.)

 

q       “The documents produced, which are internal to Philip Morris, reveal links between a professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Geneva and [Philip Morris], links which have been kept secret.” (p. 4, 5th para.)

 

In the defendants’ opinion, the above considerations already constitute sufficient grounds for a conclusion of scientific misconduct and they are perplexed as to why the tribunal decided otherwise. It seems that for the tribunal it is not enough to prove that the scientific process was fraudulent; they required proof that results were false.  But for the defendants, “modifying results so that they match the expectations of the fund provider” does produce fraudulent results, an apparent contradiction in the judgment which will be brought to light during the appeal. The appeal will also provide the defense with new opportunities to expand on the subject of scientific misconduct, notably by elaborating on examples already cited, by introducing new examples and by citing other witnesses.

 

The trial was placed under a number of unfavorable conditions. The main judge is being promoted elsewhere at the beginning of June 2002, and appears to have precipitated the end of the trial, canceling the hearing of six defense witnesses, two of whom were key to the case. The defense perceives this decision as an infringement of its rights and has registered a formal protest. Furthermore, in Switzerland, public health and tobacco-control advocates are still depicted by many as zealots. The plaintiff’s attorney qualified the defendants as “talibans” and their motives as “sadistic”. The judgment reflected some of these attacks: “Moved by a blind desire to prevent smoking and feeling vested with a mission, [the defendants] have acted precipitously in what appears to be more a quest for personal publicity than a real desire to put an end to certain contestable practices in the future.”  (p.4, 5th para.) The defendants are greatly dismayed by this unfounded attack. They reiterate that their only intention and the objective of their respective associations are the promotion of public health, by alerting the public of the dangers of smoking and the practices of the tobacco industry, in conformance with the policies and guidelines of the World Health Organization, the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health and the Direction générale de la santé du canton de Genève, among other authorities.                  

 

In spite of its shortcomings, the tribunal’s decisions and the considerations on which they are based, represent very significant advances. This is the first tobacco-related trial in Switzerland. In an initially unfavorable context, the defense has scored very crucial points. Most of the key issues have been decided in favor of the defense. The media impact of the trial has been enormous in the whole of Switzerland. The three national televisions were present during the announcement of the judgment. The press generally understands very well the implications of the case and gives excellent reports to the public. It labeled the 24 May decision as a “first round” in the process. CIPRET-Genève and OxyGenève remain fully confident that they have a good case, that truth will eventually prevail and that they will win.

 

(For more information, see http://www.prevention.ch/rylanderpm.htm.)

 

 

For CIPRET-Genève

Jean-Charles Rielle

 

For OyyGenève

Pascal Diethelm