Scientologists `penetrated French state'

THE MONEY-HUNGRY practices of the Church of Scientology are expected to be laid bare at a trial that opened in Marseilles yesterday amid an atmosphere of near-paranoia over the sect's penetration of the French state and judicial system.

Seven leaders of the sect in southern France are accused of defrauding former adepts of up to pounds 15,000 each by selling pseudo-scientific "purification" courses that left the victims more psychologically disturbed than when they began.

The trial has become a cause celebre since it was revealed two weeks ago that five boxes of sealed prosecution documents had mysteriously disappeared. This was the third time that legal documents in cases against Scientologists had disappeared in France in three years. Two investigations concluded that the documents had been shredded by mistake. However, an inquiry into sects in France said the government should consider "without delay ... whether certain services of the state have been invaded by sects".

Lawyers defending the accused Scientologists - five men and two women - protested yesterday that a fair trial was impossible in the witch-hunt atmosphere in France. Their plea was dismissed. The seven are accused of cheating 10 people of sums of pounds 2,400 to pounds 15,000 between 1987 and 1990. The prosecution says the victims were tricked or morally blackmailed into paying pounds 120 an hour for "dianetic" and "mental science" courses to purify the mind and remove "undesirable sensations".

The Church of Scientology was founded by the American science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard in 1954. It is believed to have eight million disciples worldwide and 10,000 in France, often high-earning, well educated people. In 1997, six Scient-ologists were given suspended jail terms for fraud in Lyons.

Leaders of the sect who were in Marseilles yesterday claimed their church was under attack from a French state that has abandoned its commitment to "religious tolerance".

Several politicians have called for Scientology to be outlawed. Le Figaro reported yesterday that Scientologists and other sects had made efforts to penetrate the French judicial system. Of the 600 examining magistrates in Paris, "at least four or five" belonged to "sects considered as dangerous," the newspaper said.

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