Paris -- A French prosecutor asked a court on Friday to consider shutting down the Church of Scientology in the greater Paris area, saying it engaged in "mental manipulation." "This is about protecting potential victims," prosecutor Christine Forey told the court in Paris. "I ask you to think about the penalty of dissolution due to the methods used by Scientology," she said.
Forey charged the church, whose U.S. branch counts Hollywood stars including Tom Cruise among its members, with attempted fraud, untruthful advertising, and violation of people's rights by holding computerised files on them.
The case is the first time the church has been taken to court in France. The French National Assembly, or lower house of parliament, considers it a sect as distinct from a religion.
The case was initiated by former members of the church, who complain they were harassed after leaving in 1999.
The church argues that it is a spiritual movement and on Friday called three members -- teachers at the universities of Helsinki, California and Madrid -- as witnesses to testify that Scientology is, for them, a religion.
The church in the United States, where it is recognised as a religion, said on Thursday it would submit a complaint to the United Nations against France for "violation of human rights."
Seeking to control the activities of sects, French legislators passed a law last year making it an offence to abuse a vulnerable person through "the exertion of heavy or repeated pressure or techniques" liable to alter his or her judgment.
The law also allows courts to ban groups if individual members are convicted of such existing offences as fraud or wrongful advertising.
Forey asked that the church be fined at least 300,000 euros ($263,200) if it were not ordered to close.
She also requested that the group's leader in Paris, Marc Walter, 60, be given a one-year suspended prison sentence.
"The methods of Scientology, its deceitful promises of results which call for large donations of money, amount to a form of mental manipulation," Forey told the court. "The aim of this organisation is purely commercial."
Walter's lawyers argued on Thursday that there was nothing stopping any member from leaving the group.
"If someone doesn't want to belong to the church anymore, we are not going to hold them back, there's no sense in that," said defence counsel Bernard Michel.
The court is due to give its verdict on May 17.