MARSEILLE, France, Sept 20, 1999 (Reuters) - Seven Church of Scientology officials went on trial in this southern French port city on Monday accused of fraud in connection with fees charged to members of the group for spiritual purification.
The two men and five women face up to five years in prison on charges of fraud, violence and illegally practising medicine. One woman, who sent a medical certificate from her home in Los Angeles, was being tried in her absence.
Defence lawyers asked to have the hearing postponed after the court rejected their argument that a controversy over the disappearance of legal evidence in the case made a fair trial impossible.
Presiding judge Marie-Annick Varlamoff is to rule on Tuesday on whether technical objections raised by the defendants justify a postponement. State Prosecutor Danielle Doux-Ayral and lawyers for the two plaintiffs said the trial should go ahead.
It was the third time in a year that evidence was reported missing in a case involving the Church of Scientology.
Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou has said the documents missing in Marseille were thrown out by mistake by court clerks who believed they were related to a probe that had been closed.
The church, which says its members in France are harassed and persecuted, has accused its opponents of waging a slander campaign and pressuring judges by trying to pass the blame for an administrative blunder.
Last October, prosecution lawyers alleged foul play after important files in a lengthy Scientology fraud case in Paris vanished.
In another recent case, documents vanished as files were being transferred from one court to another. But a state prosecutor said they had been withdrawn by court order because they were obtained under irregular circumstances.
Scientology President Heber C. Jentzsch said in a statement faxed from Los Angeles he would complain to the United Nations Human Rights Commission that "governmental religious intolerance in France has escalated to the point where it threatens the right of minority religious members to a fair trial."
French authorities, worried by Scientology's influence, are keeping the group under close scrutiny. Alain Vivien, who heads a ministerial committee investigating sects, has called it a totalitarian movement and raised the possibility of a ban.
"Mr Vivien should be dismissed and his 'anti-sect' office disbanded," Jentzsch said.
Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement said last week the group should be watched for any abuse, but a ban would go against the freedom of thought enshrined in the French constitution.
Scientology is recognised as a religion in the United States, where it was founded in 1954 by the late American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. It claims more than eight million adherents worldwide.
The French state does not recognise any religion, but it grants tax benefits and legal advantages to the main faiths in the country -- Roman Catholic and Protestant Christian, Jewish, Moslem and Buddhist.
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