PARIS (Reuters) - A new French law means the Church of Scientology cannot be dissolved in France even if it is convicted of fraud, it has emerged during a trial of the organisation. A prosecutor has recommended that a Paris court dissolve the church’s French branch, which has been charged with fraud after complaints by former members who say they gave huge sums to the church for spiritual classes and “purification packs.”
The Church of Scientology’s French arm denies fraud.
Whatever the ruling, under a legislative reform passed just before the start of the trial in May, it is no longer possible to punish a fraudulent organisation with dissolution.
The legal snag was discovered by the Inter-ministerial Unit to Monitor and Fight Cults. Georges Fenech, head of the unit, demanded on Monday that the legal power to dissolve an organisation be reinstated.
“Faced with organisations of a sectarian nature, which present a real danger to public order and public health, the law must always have such a measure at its disposal,” he said in a statement.
Prosecutors’ unions and a lawyer representing alleged victims of the Church of Scientology, Olivier Morice, called for an inquiry into the legal change and an explanation from the Justice Ministry.
Even if the law is changed again, it cannot be applied retroactively to the Scientology trial, which was held in May and June, with the ruling expected in late October.
Jean-Luc Warsmann, a member of the ruling UMP party who introduced the bill amending the law, said in a statement that the change made the maximum penalty for fraud committed by an organisation a ban on its activities in France.
He said he believed a ban was better than dissolution, since it meant an organisation could not continue its activities under a different name.
The church said in a statement on Monday its prosecution was “scandalous” and had already seriously harmed the organisation.
Registered as a religion in the United States, with celebrity members such as actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology enjoys no such legal protection in France.
The trial, which began on May 25, centres on complaints made in the late 1990s. Scientology’s French headquarters, a bookshop and six leading French Scientology members are in the dock.
Prosecutor Maud Coujard urged the court to return a guilty verdict, dissolve the organisation in France and fine it 4 million euros (3.5 million pounds).
Scientology’s lawyer, Patrick Maisonneuve, has called the prosecutor’s recommendation a “death sentence” for the organisation in France.
Reporting by Thierry Leveque and Nicolas Bertin; writing by Sophie Hardach; editing by Andrew Roche
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