By Ingrid Rousseau
November 3, 2011
PARIS, FRANCE —Lawyers for the Church of Scientology asked a French court on Thursday to throw out the group's fraud conviction because they say the investigation and trial in the decades-old case had taken too long.
The defense submitted the argument to a Paris appeals court, which is reviewing the 2009 conviction of the church's French branch, its bookstore and six of its leaders. The group was accused of pressuring members into paying large sums for questionable remedies and using "commercial harassment" against recruits.
The group and bookstore were fined euro600,000 ($830,000). Four leaders were given suspended sentences of between 10 months and two years. Two others were fined.
While Scientology is recognized as a religion in the U.S., Sweden and Spain, it is not considered one under French law.
In the original complaint, a young woman said she took out loans and spent the equivalent of euro21,000 ($29,000) on books, courses and "purification packages" after being recruited in 1998. When she sought reimbursement and to leave the group, its leadership refused to allow either. She was among three eventual plaintiffs.
In that trial, prosecutors had tried to get the group disbanded in France and fined euro2 million ($2.8 million). But the court declined, in the end, to even take the lesser step of shutting down its operations, saying that French Scientologists would have continued their activities anyway "outside any legal framework."
The appeals court is not expected to rule before next week on whether the defendant's right to a trial within a "reasonable time period" was violated. If the court decides that it was, the case will be refereed to another court, which will have three months to consider the question.
If the court decides not to refer the case, the defense plans to argue that the verdict violates the church's freedom of religion and association.
The Los Angeles-based Church of Scientology, founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, teaches that technology can expand the mind and help solve problems. It claims 10 million members around the world, including celebrity devotees Tom Cruise and John Travolta.