March 11, 2016 / 1:14 PM / 3 years ago

Belgium court acquits scientology of organized crime charges

A man walks past the building of the Churches of Scientology for Europe in Brussels, March 11, 2016, after a Belgian court acquitted the Church of Scientology on Friday of charges of forming a criminal organization, and dismissed demands that it should close its Belgian branch and European headquarters. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A Belgian court acquitted the Church of Scientology on Friday of charges of forming a criminal organization, and dismissed demands that it should close its Belgian branch and European headquarters.

Prosecutors had accused the church’s Belgian branch, its European headquarters and a number of church members of forming a criminal organization over alleged fraud, unlawful medical practice, extortion and invasion of privacy.

They had called for it to be disbanded, along with prison terms for the members on trial.

However, presiding judge Yves Regimont dismissed all the charges against the church, which says it has been unfairly hounded for years by Belgian authorities.

“This was a religious case and nothing else. If you’ve said that you’ve said it all,” Pascal Vanderveeren, lawyer for the church, told reporters after Friday’s ruling.

Scientology, dismissed as a manipulative cult by its critics, has fought a series of legal battles across the world to have itself recognized as a religion.

The Belgian trial began in October 2015 after nearly 20 years of investigations, grouping together complaints from former members who sought to reclaim money from the church and the Brussels labor department, which said the scientologists had posted false job offers in the hope of finding new recruits.

Security was particularly tight for Friday’s verdict, with a heavy police presence and frisking of the public on entry to the courtroom, after demonstrators had threatened to disturb the sitting.

Reporting by Robert-Jan Bartunek; Writing by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Dominic Evans

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