x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

French court upholds Scientology fraud conviction

A Paris appeal court upholds a fraud conviction and a fine of hundreds of thousands of euros against the Church of Scientology for fleecing vulnerable followers.

PARIS // A Paris appeal court yesterday upheld a fraud conviction and a fine of hundreds of thousands of euros against the Church of Scientology for fleecing vulnerable followers.

The 2009 conviction saw Scientology's Celebrity Centre and its bookshop in Paris, the two branches of its French operations, ordered to pay €600,000 (Dh2.9 million) in fines for preying financially on several followers in the 1990s.

The original ruling, while stopping short of banning the group from operating in France, dealt a blow to the movement best known for its Hollywood followers such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

Alain Rosenberg, the leader of the movement in France, saw his two-year suspended jail sentence and €30,000 fine upheld.

The court either upheld or increased fines - now ranging between €10,000 and €30,000 euros - against five more Scientologists.

Their convictions were for fraud or the illegal practice of pharmacy after plaintiffs said they were given vitamins and concoctions which the group claimed would improve their mental state.

"This is very good news for those who fight against cults and a serious defeat for the the Church of Scientology," said Olivier Morice, a lawyer for Unadfi, a group that campaigns against sects and was a plaintiff in the case.

France regards Scientology as a cult, not a religion, and has prosecuted individual Scientologists before, but the 2009 trial marked the first time the organisation as a whole had been convicted.

Church of Scientology lawyers in November raised five constitutional questions in a bid to get the trial annulled, but they were rejected, prompting the defendants and their lawyers to walk out.

On Tuesday, the Celebrity Centre claimed there had been "numerous violations of defence rights" and "doubts about the independence of the justice system ... after the heavy interference of the executive in the judiciary".

But the prosecutor Hughes Woirhaye said the Scientologists were adopting an "evasive strategy" and making "a deliberate choice of systematic denial".