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French fraud case puts Scientology in the dock

The Guardian, Tuesday 21 September 1999

Jon Henley in Paris

Facing the prospect of heavy fines and up to five years in prison, seven senior officials of the Church of Scientology appeared before a Marseille court yesterday in a case that could well decide the organisation's future in France.

The case coincides with growing public concern about the extent of Scientology's influence over the French justice system.

Key evidence in cases involving the movement has been mysteriously lost or destroyed - supposedly by accident - three times in the past 12 months.

The defendants, five of them women, include the church's former regional head, Xavier Delamare. They are charged with defrauding fellow members in Nice and Marseille of millions of francs in fees for so-called "consultations" and "spiritual purification sessions" costing from £1,200 to £15,000 each.

Jean-Yves Le Borgne, appearing for the church, asked for the trial to be postponed.

But the presiding judge, Francoise Issenjou, dismissed Mr le Borgne's contention that the present "atmosphere of hate" made a fair hearing for his clients impossible, and ordered the trial to go ahead.

Six Scientologists were given suspended prison sentences for fraud in a similar case in Lyon in 1997.

"It's absolutely vital that this case, which is already 10 years old, gets heard now and isn't deferred any longer," said Jean-Michel Pesenti, representing two plaintiffs, both former Scientologists.

"This case highlight all of Scientology's many faults. If the Lyon verdict is repeated, it will be vitally important in determining the authorities' future attitude."

But in a statement faxed from Los Angeles, the church's president, Heber Jentzsch, said he would complain to the UN commission on human rights that "governmental religious intolerance in France has escalated to the point where it threatens the right of minority religious members to a fair trial".

Like its neighbour Germany, France has had a long and troubled relationship with Scientology. Both countries refuse to recognise it as a religion or to give it the tax exemptions it demands, arguing that it is a purely commercial operation dedicated to making money.

A 1996 parliamentary report in France described the church, which claims 8m members worldwide, as a sect that should remain under constant surveillance, while the German interior ministry said in 1997 that the organisation had aspirations hostile to the constitution.

Laws against "mental manipulation" are being considered in both countries in an attempt to further check its activities.

The US - where Scientology is recognised as a religion and stars such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta are adherents - has accused France and Germany of persecuting Scientologists.

According to the Marseille police, it is the church which is guilty. They found that in 1989, soon after the first complaints from former Scientologists were registered, the church's Nice branch alone declared a turnover of £700,000.

One unhappy doctor told the investigators that he had been swindled out of £13,200, and an out-of-work electrician claimed to have suffered severe psychological and physical trauma as a result of more than 40 hours of Scientology "therapy".

Scientology was founded in 1954 by the American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Members are expected to buy services and goods from the church, such as the £3,000 "electrometer" - referred to by the Marseille public prosecutor as a "piece of electronic equipment absurdly cloaked in mystery".

The prosecutor said that the church's "purification courses" consisted largely of "intensive sauna sessions, jogging, and massive consumption of vitamins A, B, C, and PP, or products passed off as such".

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