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Church of Scientology on trial in France

Paris — The Church of Scientology and six of its French leaders went on trial on Monday on charges of organised fraud that could lead to an outright ban on the organisation in France.

Known for its Hollywood celebrity followers Tom Cruise and John Travolta, the group is in the dock in Paris for the second time in six years, although French courts have prosecuted several individual Scientologists since 1978.

The court is hearing a complaint from two women, one of whom alleges she was manipulated into handing over 20,000 euros (28,000 dollars) for costly Scientology products, such as an "electrometer" to measure mental energy.

She says she was approached in a Paris street by a Scientologist in late 1998 who offered a free personality test, at a time when she was feeling psychologically fragile.

After being told that her test results were poor, the woman was sold a series of life-improvement courses, vitamins and other products that she could ill afford, landing her in debt.

The second complainant alleges she was forced by her Scientologist employer to undergo testing and enroll in courses in 1998. When she resisted, she was fired.

Originally, there were four complainants, but two have since withdrawn.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers argue that Scientology resorts to harassment and pressure to rein in victims who show signs of vulnerability.

The Scientology Celebrity Centre in Paris, its director Alain Rosenberg and five other top officials are accused of preying on fragile followers "with the goal of seizing their fortune by exerting a psychological hold."

Although seven people were charged, one defendant has since died.

The group’s spokeswoman in France rejected the accusations, insisting that Scientology was a legitimate religion whose members faced persecution.

"This is a trial for heresy," said Daniele Gounord, adding that the Church was being "hounded" in French courts because it advocated new ideas.

The court’s presiding judge Sophie-Helene Chateau insisted that "it is not up to the courts to decide on an issue of society," referring to the movement’s status in France, where officials treat it as a sect.

Some of the Scientologists are also charged with illegally supplying pharmaceutical products after plaintiffs said they were given vitamins and concoctions to improve their mental state.

If convicted of organised fraud as a group, the defendants face a maximum sentence of seven years in jail and a fine of one million euros (1.4 million dollars).

Should French prosecutors win a conviction, the movement’s French structures, the Scientology Celebrity Centre and an associated bookshop in Paris, could be shut down for failing to meet their responsibilities as legal entities.

However, even if the court rules in favour of the plaintiffs and decides to impose a ban, the Church of Scientology has the right to appeal and the legal wrangling could continue for years.

Founded in the United States in 1954 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology is officially recognised as a religion there for tax purposes.

Politicians in some European countries including France, Germany, Greece and Russia have accused the movement of exploiting its members financially.

There are believed to be several thousand Scientology followers in France — the movement claims 45,000 among a worldwide membership of 12 million — but the state does not recognise it as a religion.

The trial is scheduled to continue until June 17 and a ruling is not expected until some time later.