The Church of Scientology is being investigated by the FBI for human trafficking, it has been alleged.
Part of the probe is believed to surround the cult's mysterious leader David Miscavige, a close friend of actor Tom Cruise who was best man at his wedding, who allegedly doled out regular beatings to unruly members.
It also concerns alleged 'enslavement' of members of Scientology's religious order, 'Sea Org'.
The sensational claims have been made in a 28-page article published in American magazine The New Yorker, which includes a lengthy interview with Hollywood screenwriter and ex-Scientologist Paul Haggis, writer of Million Dollar Baby and Casino Royale.
Most of the claims focus on Gold Base, Scientology's vast nerve centre in the heart of the Californian desert, where Miscavige has an office.
There, it says, Scientology leaders are encouraged 'to instill aggressive, even violent, discipline'.
The journalist writes: 'The California penal code lists several indicators that someone may be a victim of human tra?cking: signs of trauma or fatigue; being afraid or unable to talk, because of censorship by others or security measures that prevent communication with others; working in one place without the freedom to move about; owing a debt to one's employer; and not having control over identification documents'.
He goes on to claim: 'Those conditions echo the testimony of many former Sea Org members.'
One former member told the magazine: 'I understood that the [FBI] investigation had been going on for quite a while.'
Another added: 'They wanted a full download about the abuse.'
One ex-Scientologist alleges that punishments included being sent to the 'Hole' - a pair of 'double-wide trailers' on the base where between eighty and a hundred people were sentenced to 'do group confessions all day and all night'.
However, the Church deny the existence of 'any place of confinement' on the base.
Another interviewee claims Church leaders had developed a 'blow drill' to track down members who left Gold Base.
The journalist writes: 'When emotional, spiritual, or psychological pressure failed to work . . . physical force was sometimes used to bring escapees back.'
Sea Org members who have 'failed to fulfill their ecclesiastical responsibilities' could be sent to one of the church’s Rehabilitation Project Force locations, described as 'punitive re-education camps'.
Re-education can include manual labour or 'extensive spiritual work', the magazine claims.
The ongoing FBI investigation also focuses on Miscavige's alleged 'Hollywood-star' lifestyle.
U.S. law bans the head of a tax-exempt organisation from enjoying 'unusual perks or compensation', called inurement.
Although the church 'vigorously objects to the suggestion that Church funds inure to the private benefit of Mr. Miscavige', he was one year gifted a Vyrus 985 C3 4V superbike worth £43,000, the magazine claims.
The New Yorker paints an unflattering picture of Miscavige, who appears to rule the organisation with an iron fist.
'His word is absolute', it says, 'and he imposes his will even on some of the people closest to him.'