Scientologists in France go on trial for fraud

The Church of Scientology in France went on trial today on charges of organised fraud.

Registered as a religion in the United States, with celebrity members such as actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology enjoys no such legal protection in France and has faced repeated accusations of being a money-making cult.

The group's Paris headquarters and bookshop are defendants in the case. If found guilty, they could be fined €5 million ($7 million) and ordered to halt their activities in France.

Seven leading French Scientology members are also in the dock. Some are charged with illegally practising as pharmacists and face up to 10 years in prison and hefty fines.

The case centres on a complaint made in 1998 by a woman who said she was enrolled into Scientology after members approached her in the street and persuaded her to do a personality test.

In the following months, she paid more than €21,000 for books, "purification packs" of vitamins, sauna sessions and an "e-meter" to measure her spiritual progress, she said.

Other complaints then surfaced. The five original plaintiffs - three of whom withdrew after reaching a financial settlement with the Church of Scientology - said they spent up to hundreds of thousands of euros on similar tests and cures.

They told investigators that Scientology members harassed them with phone calls and nightly visits to cajole them into paying their bills or taking out bank loans. The plaintiffs were described as "vulnerable" by psychological experts in the case.

Scientology, founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, describes the "e-meter" as a religious artefact that helps the user and supervisor locate spiritual distress.

Investigators have described the machine as useless and said vitamin cures handed out by Church members were medication that should not have been freely sold.

Judge Jean-Christophe Hullin ruled last year that the offices and members, including the group's 60-year-old French head, Alain Rosenberg, should be tried. The public prosecutor had recommended the case be shelved.

In a trial that has revived a debate about religious freedom in secular France, the defence is expected to argue the court should not intervene in religious affairs.

Scientology has faced numerous setbacks in France, with members convicted of fraud in Lyon in 1997 and Marseille in 1999. In 2002, a court fined it for violating privacy laws and said it could be dissolved if involved in similar cases.

The headquarters and bookshop account for most of the group's activities in France and a guilty verdict would in practice mean its dissolution, although it is unclear whether it could still open other branches in the future.

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