A trial has opened in Paris over the alleged rape of pupils in so-called “boat schools,” a year after the French state was found guilty of “denial of justice” for taking too long to bring the case to court.
Leonid Kameneff, a former child psychotherapist who founded L’Ecole en Bateau, in which children between the ages of nine and 16 would travel on a boat for months, or a year, as an alternative to mainstream education, is accused of rape and sexual abuse against 10 former pupils. Three other crew members are also on trial over similar charges.
The case has come to court decades after some of the alleged attacks on the boats, in the 1980s and 1990s. The first complaint of abuse against the schools was made in 1971, and was followed in the 1990s by further complaints for rape.
Last year, in a rare ruling, the French state was found guilty of “denying justice” to the complainants by taking so long to bring a trial, and was ordered to pay large sums in compensation to the alleged victims.
Kameneff’s private boat school project began in 1969, launching in the climate of new ideas that accompanied France’s social unrest of May 1968. He described it as a laid-back alternative to the mainstream school system: Children would travel the world on one of three boats, learning sailing and diving, as well as academic subjects. Between 1969 and 2002, more than 400 boys and about 60 girls took part, leaving their families for long journeys, some of which lasted more than a year.
Kameneff, now 76, was extradited from Venezuela in 2011. Some of the alleged victims described him as an all-powerful, guru-like figure.
A judge ruled on Tuesday that the trial, in France’s minors’ court, which normally sits behind closed doors, would be held in public.
“We have nothing to hide,” the attorney general said, adding that the trial would tackle “important questions that concern French society.”
The 10 alleged victims, now in their 30s and 40s, include men and women who hold jobs such as magistrate, engineer and journalist. In all, 27 complaints were made, but in some cases too much time had elapsed since the events for them to go to trial.
One of the complainants in the trial told the daily Liberation: “The shame, the pain, the heavy weight to carry: I don’t think any of that will disappear with a trial.”
However, he said he wanted the justice system to acknowledge who was responsible for the abuse: “If they don’t recognize that, I’ll be an object once more, something to be used; if they do recognise that, it will give me back some human value.”
The trial is expected to run until March 22.