Scientologists ask French appeal court to discard fraud ruling

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A French appeal court was asked yesterday to overturn a two-year-old legal ruling that branded the Church of Scientology an "organised fraud".

The California-based movement, whose members include the actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, argued that the French judgment was invalid because it took an unreasonably long time to come to court. With unacknowledged irony, lawyers for the Scientology movement attempted to make the legal process even longer yesterday. They asked for their own appeal to be postponed for a series of technical reasons. They also claimed that the appeal court judges had been subjected to unfair government pressure.

Lawyers representing civil parties in the case said that this was typical of the systematic delaying tactics which had been deployed by the French branch of the Scientology movement to try to prevent the 11-year-old allegations of fraud from ever coming to trial. The Paris appeal court will decide today or early next week whether to proceed. In 2009, the Paris criminal court imposed fines totalling €600,000 (£517,000) on Scientology's two main French institutions and declared the movement's core claims of Scientology were "fallacious" and "without scientific value" and designed to "hook" members into paying large amounts of money.

Two female plaintiffs alleged that, between 1997 and 1999, the Scientology movement persuaded them to pay the equivalent of €21,000 and €49,500 for drugs, vitamins, counselling, saunas and equipment to improve their mental and physical health. This included an "electrometer" to measure their "spiritual condition". The two main Scientology bodies in France – the Celebrity Centre and the Scientology library – were convicted of "systematic use of personality tests of no scientific value... with the sole aim of selling services and products". Scientology was founded in 1952 by former science fiction writer, L Ron Hubbard. Although its complete teachings are available only to senior followers, one of its core beliefs is that humans are immortal beings who have betrayed their true nature.

The appeal court must decide whether the movement's right to a trial within a "reasonable time period" was violated. If the court disagrees, its lawyers will argue that the ruling breached the religious freedom guaranteed under French law.