MARSEILLE, France (AP) - A controversial trial of seven members of the Church of Scientology began Monday in southern France but was immediately bogged down by a scandal over missing evidence.
The Scientologists' defense demanded the trial be postponed because of the "dreadful climate" created after documents relating to the case disappeared from the court. An official inquiry found that the loss of the documents two weeks ago was due to a mistake by a court clerk.
Scientology leaders in the southern French cities of Nice and Marseille came under investigation in 1990 for alleged fraud, illegal practice of medicine and premeditated violence.
The two latter charges have now been dropped.
The original charges in 1990 were lodged by 10 people. But nine dropped their claims. The man now bringing the case, Raymond Scapillato, was the only one not to withdraw his claim until today when the second man, also one of the original ten who withdrew his claim, reentered the case as a civil party.
The court rejected the defense's first appeal, but recessed Monday afternoon to consider a second request to postpone.
France has long had a contentious relationship with Scientology, which is fighting to be recognized as a legitimate religion in Europe and numbers Tom Cruise, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley among its high-profile members.
In July, France's highest court upheld the acquittal of eight Scientology members accused of corruption and theft, saying it lacked the authority to decide whether Scientology is a religion.
France registers the Church of Scientology on a list of 173 groups to be tracked to prevent cult activity. Most other European countries do not accept it as a religion.
Founded in 1954 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the organization teaches that technology can expand the mind and help solve human problems.
The Marseille trial is due to last three days.
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