Madrid, Spain -- A long-awaited trial began Tuesday against Church of Scientology members accused of tax fraud and other crimes, although the main defendant, the church's American leader Rev. Heber Jentzsch, failed to show up. Because of Jentzsch's absence, prosecutors asked for another postponement in a case that dates back to 1984. But Judge Pilar Olivan, presiding over a three-judge panel at the Madrid Provincial Court, denied the request and said the trial should proceed against 16 other defendants. They are all Spaniards who either belonged to or worked for the Church of Scientology.
The charges against Jentzsch still stand, and Spain will attempt to put him on trial at a later date, Olivan said, according to the news agency Efe and Fernando Castro, a spokesman for the 10,000-member Scientology branch in Spain. Castro said it is the first time a country has tried to put Jentzsch on trial.
The church was founded in 1954 by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, who taught that technology can expand the mind and solve problems. These days it claims nearly nine million members worldwide, including the actors John Travolta and Tom Cruise.
Spanish prosecutors have charged the 16 Spaniards with offenses that include criminal association, dlrs 2 million in tax evasion and endangering public health. But the charge sheet is so vaguely worded that the judges spent Tuesday morning's session reading the accusations to determine exactly who is charged with what, said Luis Gonzalez, another Scientology spokesman who attended part of the session.
He said the document essentially holds Jentzsch responsible for all of those offenses merely because he is leader of the church, even though he does not live in the place where they allegedly took place. ``It's as if a priest is accused of robbing from the collection basket at a church and a prosecutor indicts the pope,'' Gonzalez said.
The public health charge and some other counts in the indictment stem from activities at drug rehabilitation clinics that Scientology runs in Spain. Specifically, a doctor who works at one of them but does not belong to the church is charged with administering medicine illegally. The trial is expected to last several months, with more than 100 people scheduled to testify.
Supporters of Jentzsch say he is a victim of persecution and was indicted in Spain in 1994, after a 10-year investigation, just for being the head of the church. Jentzsch has no plans to report for the trial, and the United States -- where the Church of Scientology has had tax-exempt status as a religion since 1993 -- did not pass on the Spanish court's summons, Castro said. ``Obviously, the charge of being president of the church, which is perfectly legal in the United States, is not enough for the U.S. government to process the summons,'' Castro said.
In Spain, the Church of Scientology is officially classified as a lay association with religious goals, not as a church, the Justice Ministry said. Jentzsch was arrested in Madrid in Nov. 1988, in a police raid on a Scientology convention and jailed for three weeks. He later spent three months under house arrest at a hotel while an investigating magistrate probed fraud and tax evasion charges against him. He was eventually allowed to leave Spain -- although the indictment remained in effect -- when his mother became seriously ill, Castro said.
The trial has been postponed five times, for reasons ranging from bureaucracy to illness among defense lawyers, Spanish newspapers said.