Scientologists convicted of fraud
By Europe correspondent Emma Alberici
Oct 28, 2009
The Church of Scientology has been convicted of organised fraud in France and fined almost $1 million.
A Paris court fined the church $980,000 but stopped short of taking up the prosecutor's suggestion that the group's activities be banned.
Four leading French Scientologists were also given suspended sentences.
The case centred on the claims of former Scientologists who say they were cajoled into spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on personality tests, vitamin cures, sauna sessions and counselling.
The Church of Scientology is not recognised as a church in France, it is classified as a cult, and for the past 14 years the French government has kept it under strict surveillance.
When a Paris court was asked to investigate claims of fraud among prominent French Scientologists, prosecutors took the opportunity to demand a ban on the group's activities in France.
Four leaders of the church were found guilty and given suspended sentences of between 10 months and two years.
The group as a whole was fined but a loop hole in the law prevented the judge from shutting their operations down.
Lawyer Olivier Morice, who represented one of the victims in the trial, says it is an historic decision.
"This is the first time in France that Scientology has been condemned for organised fraud and we are extremely satisfied with this decision," he said.
The investigating judge criticised what he called Scientologists' obsession with financial gain.
Catherine Picard is the president of the national union of associations in defence of families and individual victims of cults.
"Once again, I think justice has delivered a blow to this organisation of crooks," she said.
On its website, scientology justifies the cost of its sessions by saying they could be compared to courses in a school or university.
So-called auditing sessions are said to help members literally seek immortality, which they say is priceless.
A church representative, Eric Roux, says the court says there will be an appeal.
"There has been a lot of political pressure and for sure we will go to appeal because we don't agree at all with that," he said.
"We will win in appeal or we will win in the European Human Rights Court for sure."
The Church of Scientology was founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard.
Its website describes itself as a religion that seeks spiritual enlightenment and boasts 10 million worshippers around the world, including celebrities like Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Oscar-winning Canadian film maker Paul Haggis quit the Church of Scientology overnight citing what he called the organisations tolerance of gay bashing.
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