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France's Church of Scientology today went on trial on charges of organised fraud in a case that could lead to the nationwide dissolution of the controversial organisation.
The Church's "celebrity centre" spiritual association and its Scientology Freedom Space bookshop in Paris stand accused of targeting vulnerable people for commercial gain.
Six leading members, including the celebrity centre's director, Alain Rosenberg, also face charges of illegally distributing pharmaceuticals.
The case is the second in six years to accuse the French church of fraud. It stems from the testimony of a French woman who filed an official complaint against the organisation in 1998.
Lawyers for Aude-Claire Malton claim Scientologists preyed upon her at a time when she was "very psychologically fragile", pressuring her into spending €21,000 (£18,000) – her life savings – on products including "purification packs" and vitamins.
The investigating magistrate in charge of bringing the case against the church, Jean-Christophe Hullin, argues she was the victim of a deliberately manipulative system that exploits vulnerable people in order to make money.
In his indictment, Hullin said the church, which has been glamourised by Hollywood members such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, made a profit by placing individuals in a "state of subjection". The organisation, he argued, is "first and foremost a commercial business" whose actions reveal "a real obsession for financial remuneration".
If convicted of the charges, the seven top Scientologists in the country face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of €1m. The celebrity centre and bookshop not only face a much larger fine but also run the risk of being shut down completely.
However, commentators said yesterday such an outcome would be a long time coming as the church would undoubtedly appeal against a guilty verdict.