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Monday, November 15, 1999 Published at 17:09 GMT

World: Europe

French scientologists guilty of fraud

A court in the French city of Marseilles has found five members of the Church of Scientology guilty on fraud charges over courses offered by the organisation.

The former leader of the church in southern France, Xavier Delamare, was sentenced to two years in jail, including 18 months suspended, and fined 16,000 dollars for manipulating people into giving money to the church.

He will not return to jail because he has spent 17 weeks in pre-trial detention.

Four more people were given suspended prison sentences ranging from six months to a year, and another two were found not guilty.

The charges against the seven defendants - who are alleged to have obtained large sums of money from fellow sect-members by fraudulent means - date back to the late 1980s.

They went on trial last September accused of accepting money for dubious treatments organised for church members.

'Purification' at a price

Some of these included 'purification' sessions and vitamin cures sold at excessive prices, according to the prosecution. The case grew out of complaints by a former scientologist.

Charges of violence and illegally practising medicine have been dropped.

Prosecutors in the case had sought more severe sentences.

They argued that "beneath the religion there is a clear, institutionalised business drift" in which money was extorted by psychological manipulation. They said people with real psychological problems had been targeted.

[ image: Scientology claims more than 8 million adherents]
Scientology claims more than 8 million adherents
Scientology is officially listed as a dangerous cult in France, and the case has led to renewed calls for the organisation to be banned in the country. Monday's verdict is a setback for the group's efforts to be recognised as a religion.

In a statement after the verdict the scientologists accused the case of being politically motivated.

Daniele Gounord, a spokeswoman for the church, described the verdict as "very severe" and said Mr Delamare served as a "scapegoat in a case with serious political overtones."

The trial opened in September amid controversy over the disappearance of 50 boxes of evidence from the Marseilles prosecutor's office.

Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou, who has raised the prospect of banning the church in France, said the loss of the files was simply a mistake. The church says they were deliberately destroyed.

'Outrageous harassment'

The church itself - which claims some 40,000 adherents in France - accused the French government of "trying to turn the justice system into a Roman circus.

[ image: Scientologists say files were deliberately destroyed]
Scientologists say files were deliberately destroyed
The group says its members are subjected to slander and persecution.

They have appealed to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe to help them dissolve France's anti-sect unit.

Popular with Hollywood stars

Scientology - founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard - teaches that technology can expand the mind and help solve human problems.

The sect has many high-profile Hollywood adherents, including John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

In the United States, the Church of Scientology is regarded as a religion.

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20 Sep 99 | Europe
Scientology trial opens in France

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