Scientologists fined in France

CNN News/May 17, 2002

Paris, France -- A French court has fined the Paris branch of the Church of Scientology for data protection violation but acquitted it of attempted fraud and false advertising in connection with its efforts to recruit and keep members

The court on Friday fined the church 8,000 euros ($7,300), while imposing a 2,000-euro fine ($1,800) on Marc Walter, the president of the Ile de France section that includes Paris.

But the court declined to impose the heaviest penalty sought by prosecutors -- an order to disband the church's Paris branch.

The church said it would appeal the ruling, saying that it violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

"The decision is an attempt to apply commercial law to prohibit religious expression. It is an intolerable interference by the state with the religious freedom won from 2000 years of history in Europe," Leisa Goodman, human rights director for the Los Angeles-based church, was reported by The Associated Press as saying.

The conviction stemmed from a complaint by a former member who said he was bombarded with publicity materials even though he wished to end his membership.

France has long had a contentious relationship with the church, which was founded in 1954 by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard and counts actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its members.

A number of the church's leading figures in France have faced separate legal battles.

Scientologists have likened the trial to a witch hunt and say their faith is a religion like any other. The church has 40,000 members in France, including 20,000 in Paris.

The Church of Scientology has sought recognition as a religion in Europe, but in many European countries its activities are regarded unsympathetically. In France, it is placed on a list of nearly 200 groups under surveillance to prevent cult activities.

France has increasingly been hostile to groups it classifies as sects. Last year it adopted a law that increases the powers of the courts against sects as part of a larger crackdown.

The church is to a significant extent devoted to the personality cult of L. Ron Hubbard, who died in somewhat mysterious circumstances in California in 1986 leaving a corporate empire worth millions of dollars as well as a huge personal fortune.

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