Scientologists convicted of fraud in France
Paris -- French judges fined the Church of Scientology almost a million dollars on Tuesday for defrauding vulnerable followers but stopped short of banning the group from operating in France.
Scientology’s Celebrity Centre and its bookshop in Paris, the two branches of its French operations, were ordered to pay 600,000 euros (900,000 dollars) in fines for preying financially on its followers in the 1990s.
Alain Rosenberg, the French leader of a movement best known for its Hollywood followers Tom Cruise and John Travolta, was handed a two-year suspended jail sentence and fined 30,000 euros on the same charge.
Three more Scientologists received shorter suspended sentences and fines ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 euros for fraud, while two were fined 1,000 and 2,000 thousand euros for the illegal practice of pharmacy.
France regards Scientology as a cult, not a religion, and has prosecuted individual Scientologists before, but this case marks the first time the organisation as a whole has been convicted.
"Religious freedom is in danger in this country," declared Celebrity Centre spokesman Eric Roux after the verdict, urging France to "recognise the legality of the Church of Scientology."
The Scientologists’ lawyer Patrick Maisonneuve said he would appeal, but that "the most important thing is that this association can continue to exercise its activities" in France where it claims 45,000 followers.
The Paris case followed a complaint by two women, one of whom says she was manipulated into handing over 20,000 euros in 1998 for expensive products including an "electrometer" to measure mental energy.
A second claims she was forced by her Scientologist employer to undergo testing and enrol in courses, also in 1998. When she refused she was fired.
The Church of Scientology was ordered to publish the Paris court’s ruling in half a dozen newspapers and magazines in France and abroad.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Olivier Morice, welcomed "a historic decision" that would help "future victims to be warned about the methods of Scientology" in France and elsewhere.
Prosecutors initially asked the court to order a ban on the movement’s French operations.
But last month the court was alerted to a little noticed legal change voted in by parliament in May, the month the trial began, which barred judges from dissolving an organisation convicted of fraud.
Although the change has since been dropped, it was not retrospective, forcing the court to downgrade its sentence in the Scientology case.
The head of France’s interministerial body on cults, Georges Fenech, said the ruling was an important milestone, but said he was sorry that judges were prevented from tougher action.
"I strongly regret that the law was changed discreetly during the trial, just before the trial, without anyone knowing," he told France 24 television.
Judge Sophie-Helene Chateau argued "a very heavy fine" would be more effective than a ban that "would run the risk of its activities being pursued outside of any legal framework," suggesting the group could go underground.
Catherine Picard, of the UNADFI anti-cult pressure group said it was "a fairly subtle and intelligent judgment that will undermine the organisation and allow greater control over it."
Critics of Scientology had accused it of "infiltrating" the National Assembly to lobby for the legal change.
Outraged by the allegation, the Scientologists had asked the judge to reopen the case to clear them of suspicion.
Founded in 1954 by US science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology is recognised as a religion in the United States and claims a worldwide membership of 12 million.
But European officials in France, Germany, Greece, Russia and elsewhere accuse it of tricking vulnerable members out of large sums.
The French ruling marks a new chapter in a global battle over the group’s image, one that forced Wikipedia to block known Scientologists from editing entries at the communally-crafted online encyclopaedia earlier this year.