PARIS The Church of Scientology was convicted of fraud by a French court Tuesday but escaped being banned due to a temporary change in the law.
The French branch of the U.S.-based organization was fined 600,000 euros ($902,200). Four of its leaders received suspended prison sentences of up to two years and were fined between 5,000 and 30,000 euros.
"This is an important and historic decision because it is the first time that Scientology has been found guilty of involvement in organized fraud," Olivier Morice, one of the lawyers for the civil parties to the case, told reporters.
The case was brought by two former members who said they were cajoled into spending 21,000 euros and 49,500 euros on personality tests, vitamin cures, sauna sessions and "purification packs."
But prosecutors were thwarted in their attempt to get the group banned due to a change in the law which, for a few months while the case was under way, made it impossible to dissolve a legal entity on the grounds of fraud.
The law was changed back earlier this month, but that decision has no impact on the Scientology trial as the law cannot be applied retroactively.
"It is very regrettable that the law quietly changed before the trial," Georges Fenech, head of the Inter-ministerial Unit to Monitor and Fight Cults, told France 24 television.
"The system has now been put in place by parliament and it is certain that in the future, if new offences are committed, a ban could eventually be pronounced," he said. The Church of Scientology, whose celebrity members include Tom Cruise and John Travolta, says it has 45,000 members in France. It welcomed the news it could continue to operate there.
"There is no ban, the Church of Scientology can continue to exist, that's the first lesson from the ruling," said Patrick Maisonneuve, a lawyer representing the group.
"There's no escaping the reality that there is a large community of Scientologists happy to practice their religion," he said. The group has said it will appeal the verdict.
Scientology has faced numerous setbacks in France, with members convicted of fraud in Lyon in 1997 and Marseille in 1999. In 2002, a court fined it for violating privacy laws and said it could be dissolved if involved in similar cases.
Scientology says it has gone to court in many countries to uphold the right to freedom of religion.
($1=.6650 Euro) (Writing by Sophie Taylor; editing by Robin Pomeroy)