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Scientologists defend the faith in court

Shortly after 5am on 24 March 1988, Patrice Vic, a married man aged 31 with two children, threw himself off the balcony of the family's 12th floor flat in Lyon, saying that there was "no other way".

More than eight years later, and after the slow turning of a great many judicial wheels, his suicide is at the centre of a court case in which a clutch of former leaders of the Church of Scientology in France find themselves accused of "involuntary manslaughter and fraud".

The crux of the case, which has just ended with judgment reserved until next month, is whether a direct link can be proved between Vic's death and the actions of certain members of the local Scientology church. Across France, however, the seven-day trial in Lyon has been seen as a trial of the Church of Scientology itself, the verdict being bound to affect the workings of the church here.

Chief among 23 defendants is the former head of the Lyons branch of the Scientology Church, Jean-Jacques Mazier. There is also a Catholic priest, and several individuals accused of practising medicine illegally - mostly psychiatric treatment.

In the run-up to the trial, there were reports of threats made against the judge and witnesses. Two Scientologists were convicted of threatening a psychiatrist, Jean-Marie Abgrall, who had been called as an expert witness in the Lyon trial.

The fact that the case was brought at all was due to Vic's widow, Nelly, who began by instituting civil proceedings, with the support of a sympathetic investigating judge, Georges Fenech. "One day," she told the court, "we received a brochure. Out of curiosity, my husband decided to give it a try ... it turned into harassment ... and that caused tension between us."

Later, with her husband, she met Mr Mazier who offered a "purification" cure for 30,000 francs. She refused it, saying it was "pure madness", but Mr Mazier persisted: "If it is a question of money," he allegedly responded, "you can get a loan." That evening, her husband demanded to see her payslips. She refused. At 5am the next morning, after a sleepless night, he got up, saying: "Don't stop me; it's the only way", and made for the balcony. "And that was it," she said.

Her evidence was supported by the psychiatrist, Mr Abgrall, who describes Scientology - which was founded in 1954 by the American, Ron Hubbard - as "mental manipulation brought about by progressive indoctrination, destabilising an individual and reconditioning his mind along new lines". This view was opposed by a number of sociologists who argued that Scientology was, "a religion", and supported by certain French commentators who warned that if the defendants were convicted just for being Scientologists, it would jeopardise freedom of thought, speech and religion - all that France holds dear. The defence counsel insisted not only that their clients were innocent of the specific charges brought, but that the trial itself was a perversion of the judicial system. In being asked to judge the Church of Scientology, one of the defence lawyers argued, as the case wound up on Tuesday, "the court is being asked to do the government's work for it and perform what is essentially a social and preventative function. That is wrong".

Another for the defence argued: "The problem of sects exists, and it should be discussed. That can be done on television and in parliament, but at the Lyon court, we have to separate individual responsibilities. The questions are simple: does administering a personality test amount to fraud? Can a consultation be illegal?"

There can be little doubt that guilty verdicts would please at least one section of French officialdom. The authorities have been highly sensitive to the activities of sects in France for several years, but their concern was dramatically heightened last December by the mass suicide in the French Alps of 16 members of the Order of the Solar Temple.

A parliamentary commission on sects in France which reported last spring was shocked to find that there were 173 sects operating in France and that the Church of Scientology was one of the largest. The prime recommendation of its report was for a legal distinction to be drawn between "religious movements" and "cults", and for the law to be applied with more alacrity against cults suspected of abusing children, exerting pressure on individuals, or misusing funds.

However, this report also recognised the difficulty of distinguishing between such categories and of legislating where intervention could be interpreted as a violation of religious and other freedoms. No draft law has yet been tabled.

The judgment in the Lyon case is due on 22 November. A "guilty" verdict would give an extra push to the process of framing a law on sects. It could also mean that the Church of Scientology would find its activities in France more closely watched. But the depth of French intellectual sympathy for individual freedom of belief will ensure that future cases will be just as keenly argued.