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Scientologists on trial for fraud, violence and quackery

Daily Telegraph, 21 September 1999

By Julian Nundy in Paris

SEVEN Church of Scientology© officials accused of fraudently obtaining money from converts and the illegal practice of medicine went on trial in Marseilles yesterday.

The defendants, five of whom are women, are accused of "embezzlement, the illegal practice of medicine and violence with premeditation" between 1987 and 1990. They are said to have charged for services like Dianetics, described as a "mental science" aimed at "suppressing illness and undesirable sensations".

The prosecution alleged they charged about £120 an hour, with some courses of treatment in "extreme cases" priced at £1,500. This is the second trial of Scientology officials in France. The first, in Lyons three years ago, saw six receive suspended jail sentences on similar charges, with one sentenced for manslaughter after a convert committed suicide.

The Marseilles trial has been surrounded by scandal after the unexplained destruction of court documents relating to the case came to light this month. It resulted from a suit brought 10 years ago by a doctor, Robert Polguer, who said he had paid £137,000. The three judges retired for four hours yesterday to consider a defence request for postponement because of what one lawyer called "a hateful lynching atmosphere in the media." The request was rejected. The defendants face up to five years in prison and fines of up to £250,000.

On Sept 8, the justice minister, Elisabeth Guigou, ordered an inquiry into the destruction of more than three tons of court documents, some of them evidence collected for the Scientology case. The papers were included in a consignment destroyed at the end of last year to make room for new files in the main Marseilles courthouse. It was the second time that legal documents relating to Scientology in France have disappeared.

Last year, other documents concerning the Church of Scientology - officially considered a cult in France - disappeared from the Paris Palais de Justice. That case, Mme Guigou said, was different. Then, "it was not destruction but a disappearance and that was even more disturbing. Then there was no question of error".

The prosecutor said the trial would still go ahead as planned but pointed out that it would be up to the three-judge court to decide on the importance of the missing papers once the court convened. As the trial opened, the prosecutor said the documents destroyed were "subsidiary" and enough evidence remained to put his case.

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