26 May 2009

Scientologists on trial in France for fraud

11:23 pm on 26 May 2009

The Church of Scientology's French branch went on trial on Monday on charges of organised fraud, in a case that could lead to the group being dissolved in France.

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 case in France 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 euros for books, "purification packs" of vitamins, sauna sessions and an "e-meter" to measure her spiritual progress, she said.

Other people also complained. 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.

The group's Paris headquarters and bookshop are defendants in the case. If found guilty, they could be fined five million euros and ordered to halt their activities.

Since the two units account for most of the group's activities in France, that would in practice mean its dissolution -- although it is unclear whether it could still open new centres in the future.

Six leading French Scientology members are also in the dock, some charged with illegally practising as pharmacists and facing up to 10 years in prison and hefty fines.