PARIS, Sept 8, 1999 (Reuters) - France on Wednesday said it would investigate how for the second time in a year legal documents that could have been used as evidence in a case against the Church of Scientology had been lost.
Seven members of the Church are due to stand trial in Marseille later this month for alleged fraud, but the proceedings have been clouded by news that numerous documents have been destroyed.
The Justice Ministry said it wanted a full enquiry into the judicial embarrassment, which only came to light this week, and promised to send investigators to Marseille later on Wednesday.
"The loss of trial documents is very serious. I want all the truth about this. Was it an error or was it sabotage?'' Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou told reporters after a cabinet meeting. "At first sight it seems like human error,'' she added.
Last October, prosecution lawyers blamed foul play when they discovered that important files in a lengthy Scientology fraud case in Paris had vanished.
The Marseille prosecutor said on Wednesday that the latest set of documents, which included information on Scientology accounts and followers, were thrown out by clerks sometime last year because of an administrative error.
However, a government committee investigating cults appeared unwilling to accept the initial version of events and questioned whether some state organisations had been infiltrated by members of the Scientology movement.
"The fact that this problem has now occurred in both Paris and Marseille makes one think that maybe this is not an accident,'' said Denis Barthelemy, secretary general of the interministerial committee for the struggle against cults.
"The question therefore arises once again if certain state services have not been infiltrated by cult organisations,'' he told Reuters.
Unlike the United States, France does not recognise Scientology as a religion, and members of the group complain of harassment and persecution.
Scientology spokesman Jean Dupuis said on Wednesday that he regretted the loss of the Marseille documents and dismissed the suggestion that foul play might have been involved.
"This affair is regrettable for all concerned,'' he said.
The Marseille documents were thrown out with a batch of other unopened files by court clerks who believed they related to a case which had already been closed.
Despite the loss, an official at the Justice Ministry said he believed the trial could still continue.
Scientology, founded in 1954 by the late American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and based in the United States, claims more than eight million adherents worldwide, including 4,000 in France.
Members include Hollywood film stars Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Kirstie Alley and Lisa Marie Presley.
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