Updated A French appeals court on Thursday upheld the Church of Scientology’s 2009 fraud conviction on charges it pressured members into paying large sums for questionable remedies.
Karin Pouw, a spokeswoman for the church in Los Angeles, denounced Thursday’s decision, calling it a “miscarriage of justice.”
She said the group would appeal the decision to the Court of Cassation and plans to bring a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights. Another complaint in pending with a U.N. special rapporteur.
During the appeals process, the prosecution had asked for the church to be fined at least euro 1 million ($1.3 million) and its bookstore euro500,000. But the appeals court on Thursday instead ordered the same fines as the trial court, euro 400,000 ($530,000) for the church and euro 200,000 for its bookstore.
In October 2009 A French court convicted the religious cult and six of its members of organized fraud. The case centered on the complaints of several people who spent huge amounts of money for the cult’s ‘purification packs’ and other alleged ‘cures.’
Scientology’s Celebrity Centre and its bookshop in Paris, the two branches of its French operations, were ordered to pay 600,000 Euro (900,000 dollars) in fines for preying financially on its followers in the 1990s.
The six members were fined as much as 400,000 Euro ($595,000) each. Among them was Alain Rosenberg, the French leader of the movement, who was handed a two-year suspended jail sentence and fined €30,000.
On appeal, the prosecutor has sought a fine of not less than €1.5 million for the Celebrity Centre and the SEL bookshop, more than double the original penalty, and suspended prison sentences for most of the accused.
France regards Scientology as a cult, not a religion, and has prosecuted individual Scientologists before, but the original trial marked the first time the organisation as a whole had been convicted.
Church of Scientology lawyers in November raised five constitutional questions in a bid to get the trial annulled, but they were rejected, prompting the defendants and their lawyers to walk out.
The Celebrity Centre said in a statement that it had boycotted the trial because of “numerous violations of defence rights” and “doubts about the independence of the justice system felt throughout the trial, after the heavy interference of the executive in the judiciary.”
Prosecutor Hughes Woirhaye said the Scientologists were adopting an “evasive strategy” and making “a deliberate choice of systematic denial”.
Court hearings were curtailed because of the absence of the accused, while the four former followers who brought the case also withdrew from the trial.
Picard testified to the “heavy debts, broken family ties” and the “state of subjection” that could result from the “sect-like methods” used by Scientology to “indoctrinate vulnerable people”.
The case centres on a complaint made in 1998 by a woman who said she was enrolled into Scientology after members approached her in the street and persuaded her to do a personality test.
Other complaints then surfaced. The five original plaintiffs – three of whom withdrew after reaching a financial settlement with the Church of Scientology – said they spent up to hundreds of thousands of euros on similar tests and ‘cures’.
They told investigators that Scientology members harassed them with phone calls and nightly visits to cajole them into paying their bills or taking out bank loans.
The plaintiffs were described as ‘vulnerable’ by psychological experts in the case.